This exhibition was an elaborate and emotional tribute to the artist Hung Liu’s grandfather, who was the leading Chinese scholar on the subject of “Qianshan”— the group of nearly 1,000 mountain peaks in the north of China that is a holy place for Taoists and Buddhists alike. Eleven large oil paintings as well as three watercolor drawings were on display here. All but one of the images were based on photographs taken in the first half of the 20th century of the mountains and their denizens and pilgrims. The painted works often depicted religious figures wearing robes and deadpan expressions, and celebrated not only the mystical and intellectual pursuits of the artist’s late grandfather, but also the medium of painting.
Appearing at once ancient and freshly created, Liu’s oil paintings here featured layers of pigment and brushstrokes that are occasionally as thick as toothpaste. Yet every work also contained verticals of thinned paint that appeared to drip off the bottoms of the canvases, leaving the poetic suggestion of a veil of tears. Stylized flora and fish could be seen behind and on top of many of the figures.
Each painting is as personal and captivating as it is solemn. In Grandfather’s Rock (2013), Liu’s ancestor is shown contemplating a sacred boulder larger than himself, while a colorful storm seems to be brewing in the sky above. It’s a moment frozen in time. For Grandma Chrysanthemum (1993), a 99- by-55-inch canvas work in the shape of the artist’s grandmother, Liu reworked her original portrait to include one of her grandfather’s maps, and placed it over her grandmother’s outsize torso. The artist’s noble and intimate hieroglyphs powerfully evoke the history of a family and a motherland.