When Hung Liu left China at age 36 to study art in the U.S., it was a windy, cloudy day in late October 1984. She took two huge suitcases with two years’ worth of toothpaste, painting materials and 20 U.S. dollars.

“And a whole group of ghosts” went with her, she told a rapt audience in Oakland recently. “We believe that when people die, they become ghosts in 49 days. There is a fear of them, but they’re not bad. I have ghosts inside of me: my mother, my grandparents, my schoolteachers. All these ghosts I share.”

In “Summoning Ghosts,” a major retrospective of Liu’s work at the Oakland Museum of California, the 80 artworks on display become a magical portal into Liu’s imagined world of the living and ghosts.  In her world, these are not opposites, nor are they scary.

She draws upon a personal collection of hundreds of historical photographs for her work, so there is the documentary reality of the anonymous and forgotten people she paints — orphans, prostitutes, court eunuchs, emaciated slave laborers.

But her painterly techniques inject a magical quality that is sympathetic, vivid, sensual and strong. Moreover, the large canvases dwarf the viewer. The result is that one feels a sense of intimacy as one gazes into the eyes of her subjects but also small before the size and dynamism of the work and its universal themes of oppression, suffering, identity and beauty.

“I want them big,” she once said about her subjects. “I want them really in your face. You cannot deny them.”

Liu’s interest in history and photography has roots in the politically repressive and tumultuous period she experienced as an art student in China under Mao Zedong.  She was separated in infancy from her father, who was a Kuomintang captain. When they finally reunited 44 years later, he was living in a camp for the elderly and he pretended not to know her in order to protect her. In Liu’s youth, owning a photograph was a political act. During the Cultural Revolution, families burned photo albums to destroy all evidence that they were bourgeois.

Even the photographs of villagers that Liu took between 1968 to 1972, when she was sent to the countryside to be “re-educated,” went undeveloped for 40 years. The prints of the local people on display in the exhibition have a ghostly presence, having finally been released from their analogue time capsule.

The sense of memory and time passing in Liu’s work is sharpened by her signature touches. These draw on her classical Chinese training: brushed circles and classical motifs placed on and around the figures, such as blossoms, butterflies or in the case of a hungry child — a yellow Imperial porcelain bowl — because he, too, Liu says, deserves to eat from a beautiful dish. The butterfly is pretty but has a short life, “a tragic life.” So the woman in the same painting is long gone and, like the butterfly, evokes both mourning and a sense of ephemeral beauty. Vertical paint drips create a material and visual veil that implies blurring and dissolution. Objects and small shelves are sometimes added to a canvas, creating the feeling of standing before an altar.

When Liu arrived at University of California, San Diego in 1981, she was a mural painter trained in socialist realism who was on the leading edge of artists leaving China to study abroad. Now she is called “elder sister” by Ai Wei Wei and his contemporaries. Her introduction to performance art through Allan Kaprow was the start of a new life she calls “Chinese-becoming-American.”

René de Guzman, senior curator, urges visitors to inspect the laminated source photographs placed in the gallery and compare them to Liu’s paintings. One sees the energy, poignance and strength she has injected in the figures. They eloquently express her sentiment that “I have lived many lives — some of them my own.”

“Summoning Ghosts: The Art of Hung Liu” exhibits at the Oakland Museum of California until June 30th. The exhibition will travel for two years but the venues are not set.

For more Hung Liu exhibition information, visit www.kelliu.com.

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