New York

Hung Liu

Nahan Contemporary

Hung Liu’s exhibition here consisted of paintings, drawings, and mixed-media assemblages. What was evident in all of them was the artist’s attempt to transform memory and rage (for Liu, they go hand in hand) into a visual statement that is neither naive nor sentimental. Rather than revealing overtly personal memories, which could make her appear to be a helpless and isolated victim, Liu depicts the various historical and social forces which have implicated her for being both Chinese and a woman, and explores how these forces affected her life in China (where she was born in 1948) and in America (where she came to study art in 1984). The mixed-media assemblage Goddess of Love, Goddess of Liberty, 1989, typifies her work. The left panel of a diptych depicts a hand-painted Chinese porcelain cup, which contains the view of a naked man and naked woman (her feet bound) making love. The right panel, derived from an early-20th-century photograph, depicts a frontal view of a seated Chinese woman, her uncovered bound feet extending toward the picture plane. Each bound foot—the four smaller toes bend sharply downward—resembles a fist.

The painful, deforming practice of foot binding was used to make a Chinese woman walk more “delicately,” with short, mincing steps. It was also used to limit her ability to walk, serving as a constant reminder of her subjugated condition. Further, it stressed the value of appearance while making a virtue of hiding one’s pain and suffering, making it a combination of esthetics and cruelty. Uncovered views of bound feet are rare because women were forbidden to show their feet to anyone. On the floor in front of the diptych sits a low white wooden platform with two bowls on it. To the right of the diptych is a blackboard and a broom. The elements make reference to another work on display here, Goddess of Liberty, which features the Chinese ideogram for “wife,” which is a combination of the characters for “woman” and “broom.”

Liu’s project is the shaping of her rage at the way Chinese women have been treated, depicted, and represented in both China and America. In Resident Alien, 1988, she juxtaposes a depiction of an immigration card, the words “Fortune Cookie” (sexual slang for a Chinese woman), along with her own portrait, suggesting that when she moved from China to America in 1984, she moved from one kind of bondage and degradation to another. Some of Liu’s work seems weighted down by the amount of information and rage the artist is trying to shape and release. Her pieces don’t always cohere. Liu’s use of familiar post-Modern devices such as juxtaposition and the combining of various media is at times ineffective and often seems too reminiscent of other artists’ work. Yet what Liu has accomplished in her short time in America is of real importance; she has created cultural images of and for the “other.” Liu never indulges in simply irony, which is often the humor of the privileged. Her documentary, photorealist style reminds the viewer that she is dealing with social and political facts, rather than esthetic theories.

John Yau