Born in Chang Chun, China, in 1948, Liu was sent to the countryside due to the "proletarian reeducation" for four years during the Cultural Revolution. After receiving a graduate degree and teaching at the Central Academy of Fine Art in Beijing, she was accepted into the graduate program in visual arts at the University of California, San Diego. She waited four years for the Chinese government to issue her a passport, but finally arrived in the United States and received her M.F.A. in 1986.
Since 1990, Liu has taught in the Art Department at Mills College, Oakland, CA, where she is a full professor. Liu is represented in New York by the Nancy Hoffman Gallery, in Miami by the Bernice Steinbaum Gallery, and in San Francisco by the Rena Bransten Gallery.
Liu's notable solo exhibitions include, among others, Towards Peng-Lai, at the Rena Bransten Gallery, San Francisco, CA; Strange Fruit: New Paintings by Hung Liu, traveling exhibition, Arizona State University Art Museum, Tempe, Arizona, and the Boise Art Museum, Boise, Idaho; Where is Mao? 2000, The Art Center, Chulalongkom University, Bangkok, Thailand; and Hung Liu: A Survey, 1988-98, The College of Wooster Art Museum, Wooster, OH.
I turn old photographs into new paintings. The photographs I work from are usually of Chinese subjects from the 19th and 20th centuries, including images of young Chinese prostitutes posing for the camera, soldiers, famine and war refugees, child street acrobats, Qing Dynasty courtesans, and laborers, usually women. In these images I am looking for the mythic pose beneath the historical figure, the elemental human conditions of working, eating, fleeing, dying, and posing.
I also weave passages of traditional Chinese art into my paintings, hoping to stir up their surfaces with stylistic contrasts and awaken a deeper sense of the cultural memory underlying the spectacle of modern Chinese history.
As a painter, I want to preserve and destroy the image at the same time. The oil washes and drips that seep through my paintings contribute to this sense of loss while dissolving the historical authenticity of the photographs I paint from. The photographs are back and white; the color in the paintings comes out of my head. Color is a way of making contact with subjects that are fading into the gray tones of history. Painting from archival photographs, especially ones that are hard to see, allows me to both discern and imagine the historical and personal narratives fixed in the photographic instant.