MELODRAMAS: In Memory of Hung Liu

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MELODRAMAS In Memor y of Hung Liu

Presented by Sherry Leedy Contemporary Art & The Byron Cohen Gallery


Sherry Leedy Contemporary Art 2004 Baltimore Ave. Kansas City, MO 64108 816.221.2626 sherryleedy.com Cover image Empress Dowager Cixi Catalog design Allison King


MELODRAMAS In Memor y of Hung Liu April 1 - May 21, 2022

Presented by Sherry Leedy Contemporary Art & The Byron Cohen Gallery


“I have always imagined that I were an actress...”

- Hung Liu


Hung Liu was born in Changchun, China in 1948, growing up during the Maoist regime. During the Cultural Revolution, she spent four years laboring in the countryside. In 1984 she immigrated to the US as a graduate student at the University of California, San Diego. Since then, she has had a fabled career, both here and abroad. On August 7, 2021, Liu died in Oakland, California, of Pancreatic cancer. She was 73. Her story seems longer than her life. In the wake of Liu’s passing, Sherry Leedy and Byron Cohen Galleries have worked with Hung Liu Studio to stage “Melodramas: In Memory of Hung Liu,” an exhibition in which Liu’s sense of theatricality – which is expansive, ironic, and often funny – is on full display through a selection of oil and mixed media paintings. Known for a kind of “Weeping Realism” expressing the pathos of human struggle, with washes and drips eroding the photographic freezeframes of memory and history, Liu also painted on the grand scale of Chinese opera and the round-the-campfire intimacy of American dust-bowl folk music. Her work was often anthemic (which is why she liked Bruce Springsteen), and patriotic without the mindless verve of propaganda. She loved her homelands, China and America, and was not afraid to depict and critique the melodramas of each. But she also painted them to the hilt – a twenty-foot (nearly stage length) revolutionary opera with unbridled operatic passion and balletic precision, western classical dancers in Maoist uniforms, pedal-to-the-metal opera choreographed along a strict party line, the whole spectacle melting away like ice cream on a warm Beijing night. A student of Peking Opera, the flamboyant, hyper-stylized stage performances driven by hi-pitched music and stinging percussion – in which only men could play women characters – Liu also understood the hyperbole at the core of Chinese revolutionary propaganda, merging Peking Opera and operatic propaganda into the stunning “Happiness for All Mankind,” whose title is taken from a lyric in the “International,” the worldwide Communist anthem. Clearly, traditional local opera and international state propaganda can only co-exist in the space of irony. Irony also pertains to the paintings Liu did of the Dowager Empress of China, whose dynasty was the last one (so far), terminating in 1911 with the revolution of the new Chinese Republic. These Byzantine compositions depicting the empress enthroned and being carried on a royal sedan by her retinue of court eunuchs, express the theatrics of imperial opulence. Although still as a mask, her face is smoothly painted (almost like make-up) with an implacable gaze; the Dowager Empress radiates the otherworldliness of the mandate of heaven. Meanwhile, Liu’s painterly hand, ripe with materiality and almost masculine at times, draws her imperial subject away from the official, stage-like formality of its photo setting back to the soil from which her personal experience as a peasant during the Cultural Revolution was gathered like wheat. The fertility of her paint supplants the sterility of her subject. Included in this exhibition are several of Liu’s more recent “Ensemble Paintings,” in which she paints images taken from Dorothea Lange’s photographs of migrant, Dustbowl-era Americans on shaped plywood panels, as if the figures have been cut from their frames and intensified with color. By adding painted canvas orbs to each composition, like suns hanging in the sky, Liu suggests a more liberated and theatrical environment for her subjects, as if performing in the gallery, nearly popping off the wall. And of course, there is the Mexican immigrant folk singer in California, and the glorious “Kern County” in which immigrant schoolchildren, under the watchful eye of a teacher, learn to throw balls - one painted by Liu with a map of Oklahoma, from whence the children came, and the other of California, to where they’ve come. Taken together, this selection of works expresses the earnest, sometimes comic melodramas that Hung Liu experienced in China - the background theater of revolutionary society - and the everyday romance of the American panorama with its commonplace ironies. Look back to look ahead. History in retrospect is theater. Jeff Kelley, 2022


Kern County 2019 Oil on canvas 82” x 120”



California 2020 Oil on canvas 72” x 72”



Installation photo by E.G. Schempf

Migrant Boy with Bunny 2021 Mixed media ensemble, oil, uv acrylic on panel and canvas 54” x 51” x 2”



Migrant Girl with Puppy 2021 Mixed media ensemble, oil, uv acrylic on panel and canvas 55” x 45” x 2”



Installation photo by E.G. Schempf

Empress Dowager Cixi 2008 Oil on panel 60” x 60”



Imperial Garden 2014 Mixed media 60” x 95”



Twins 2014 Mixed media 28” x 41”



Installation photo by E.G. Schempf

Imperial Eunichs 2008 Oil on panel 60” x 60”



Bubbles 2015 Mixed media 60” x 120”



Installation photo by E.G. Schempf

Empress Wanrong 2008 Oil and mixed media on panel 49.75” x 37.75”



Double Exposure 2014 Mixed media 60” x 90”



Installation photo by E.G. Schempf

Fan 1992 Oil on canvas, lacquered wood, ceramics 44” x 32” x 6”



Installation photo by E.G. Schempf

Farewell my Concubine 1997 Oil on canvas 68” x 60”



Installation photo by E.G. Schempf

To Create Mankind’s Happiness 2012 Mixed media 41” x 240”



End of Winter, Chicken 2013 Mixed media 36” x 41”



Installation photo by E.G. Schempf

Dream Catcher 2017 Jacquard Tapestry Edition of 8 75” x 76”



Portrait of Chinese Self #3 2013 Oil on canvas 36” x 36”


Portrait of Chinese Self #5 2013 Oil on canvas 36” x 36”


Women of Color (Maroon) 2020 Mixed media 12” x 12”

Women of Color (Purple) 2020 Mixed media 12” x 12”


Women of Color (Turquoise) 2020 Mixed media 12” x 12”

Women of Color (Red) 2020 Mixed media 12” x 12”


Installation photo by E.G. Schempf

On the Grass II 2015 Mixed media 41” x 41”



The Unknown VI Study 2016 Mixed media 20.5” x 41”



The Unknown Study 2016 Mixed media 23” x 41”



Bygone Time 2013 Mixed media 20.5” x 30.5”


Call of the Water 2009 Mixed media 20.5” x 20.5”


Apple 2011 Mixed media Edition of 9 20.5” x 20.5”


Calendar Girl Orange 2011 Mixed media B.A.T. 20.5” x 20.5”


Last Empress Wa Rong III 2012 Mixed media 20.5” x 20.5”


Series V 2007 Mixed media 13.5” x 13.5”

Series IV 2007 Mixed media 13.5” x 13.5”


She: Turquoise 2015 Mixed media 20.5” x 20.5”

Rainmaker 2011 Jacquard Tapestry 71” x 78”



In Loving Memory of Hung Liu. Photo from 2017.



Sherry Leedy Contemporary Art 2004 Baltimore Ave. Kansas City, MO 64108 816.221.2626 sherryleedy.com


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