“Drawing from Life and Death,” Hung Liu’s exhibition of new paintings at the Rena Bransten Gallery, depicts subjects that are dead – a bird, several deer, a human cadaver – but which have been studied, photographed, and rendered from life. Encountered by the artist in the context of daily living – she came upon two dead deer while hiking near her Oakland home, a red-breasted robin fell from the sky into her studio parking lot, and she was invited on several occasions to view cadavers at a local medical facility – these subjects allow us to re-imagine the canvas as a middle ground between life and death, a surface upon which the contemplative activity of painting touches, and perhaps awakens, the forms of ultimate stillness.
These canvases awaken, as well, the dead from the history of art, both Western and Asian. The epic painting of a human cadaver, named by Liu “Holy Saturday” (on that actual holiday), recalls such monumental works as Andrea Mantegna’s The Dead Christ (1490), Jacques-Louis David’s The Death of Marat (1793), Thomas Eakins’ The Gross Clinic (1875), and a host of other lamentations, depositions, and descents from the cross. Suspended one day between the Christian crucifixion and resurrection, “Holy Saturday” marks a mysterious moment of symbolic passage not from life to death, but from death to eternal life – in a painter’s parlance (we might say), from the objects on the table to the images on the canvas. “Holy Saturday” also draws meaning from the ancient sleeping Buddhas that lie in blissful repose throughout China and Southeast Asia. It refers to the Buddha’s passage from the material world of suffering to the transcendent state of Nirvana, a resurrection of sorts in which the spiritual self is freed of attachment to worldly things. The deer and birds, photographed in death by circling around them from above (as if the artist were “flying”), bring to mind the late 19th century progressions of Eadweard Muybridge, but more importantly the Apsaras (the flying angels) painted on the walls of the Buddhist caves in Dun Huang, China, where Liu studied in the 1970s.
A departure from her habit of painting from historical photographs, these studio sittings with the dead nonetheless continue Liu’s life-long interest in reclaiming ghosts from the past, be they images of prostitutes, soldiers, refugees, or – closer to home – the body of a still-warm fawn laying by the road. Taking it to the studio in her car, she photographed the fawn gently before turning it over to the city of Oakland, getting on a plane at SFO, and flying that day to China – crossing the international dateline, a day that is not a day, but a passage between one life and another. Like a still life, the paradox is that this passage is forever fixed in time.
In her new paintings, Hung Liu has drawn the dead from life, and, perhaps, drawn life from the dead.