Our first response to an exhibit cataloguing the traumatic events of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake? No thanks. But considering that "Richter Scale" is the emotionally-charged, sensitive work of Chinese artist Hung Liu, we decided to take a look.
Bernice Steinbaum has represented the Changchun-born artist for over two decades. Liu produces unique works bearing the delicate brushstrokes of traditional oil painting with the Abstract-Expressionist inklings of paint dripping down the surfaces, seemingly onto the floor.
Liu describes her practice as being inspired by archival 19th and 20th
century photos of China and its people taken by foreigners as well as the
Chinese. Informing her work are tourists trying to uncover
their imagined, exotic "Far East" wonderland as well as photographs
of little women with their feet tied and dead soldiers after fighting Western forces in
the Forbidden City. Now, Liu hits the fast-forward button into the
present, cataloguing the expressions and cries of those pummeled by the
major earthquake in the Sichuan Province in 2008 and her own memories of
the 1976 Northern China earthquake.
Without grandiose gesture or imagery, Liu expedites the process of viewing a morbid tragedy and makes the mastery of color and composition first priority for the viewer. Soon, we forget that hundreds of people were killed, abandoned, injured, and rendered homeless. The blood, the cries of grief, and the overwhelming sense of helplessness are still very real, but somehow muted. An animal's eye -- wide and alert -- peeks from the rubble. Birds hover harmlessly overhead. Throughout the neverending destruction, life is still discernible.
Liu's signature drips on the canvas imply that the scene is unfinished, still in progress, and still in a moveable state. Even though tragic events have transpired, the hope and the determination to survive continues to put each captured image into motion. In another image, rescue workers and samaritans climb uphill (atop a mountain of debris) to rescue one of their own. In the corner, a brilliant Monarch butterfly has its wings outstretched, signaling the presence of rebirth in the face of ruin.
But other images suggest the raw wounds of natural disaster, with an elderly woman crying aloud and a toddler pressing a surgical mask to her face: two images with similar titles Asparas (White and Black). Liu effortlessly balances life and death, yin and yang, hope and despair with her works without resorting to melodrama or overindulgence in hysterical gore.
"Richter Scale" succeeds in its storytelling, with a fresh and pertinent narrative, while maintaining a sincere dedication to viewing beautiful objects. Since when did modern art become beautiful to look at again? Many would think that the jarring, aggressive nature of contemporary art (a la Damien Hirst or Anselm Kiefer, for example) would be the "right" way to regard the darkness of the human condition. Liu reminds us that being aware doesn't mean having our minds (or our stomachs) continuously attacked.
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Hung Liu's "Richter Scale" runs until this Thursday at the Bernice Steinbaum Gallery (3550 N. Miami Ave., Miami). Call 305-573-2700 or visit bernicesteinbaumgallery.com.