This weekend I had the honor of going to the North Carolina Museum of Art.
It is a lovely, smallish museum with a very strong collection.
My husband and I were celebrating our belated five year anniversary. We had lingered over lunch and were meandering through the art work. We turned a corner and I saw it.
“Tim!” I whispered/shouted (as one does in a museum) “It’s a Hung Liu!!!”
Hung Liu. She is a Chinese painter working in the States, and has been my greatest inspiration for my artistic life. She paints in large scale, working with the figure, using loose, gestural marks that sing.
This was my first time seeing her work in person.
It is large. Thick. Dripping with so much paint that I had the inclination to run my fingers across it to feel the texture. (This, by the way, is frowned upon. Thus, I kept my hands in my pockets.) There was so much more than I ever expected beneath each layer. Every inch of it was lovingly worked, rich.
She can say, much more than I, what her work is about. Read more here. (Visiting this site is worth it. The images here are small, but her work is large and complex and worth investigating.)
What I can say is why, on a normal Saturday in an art museum, I stood weeping in front of a painting.
Imagine if you will, that you had spent your life studying classical music. And one day, very unexpectedly, you wander into a place where Beethoven himself is playing. The truth is that reproduction, copies, images, echoes….can only take you so far. Good music, good art needs to be experienced. Breathed in. There is something powerful about hearing or seeing an original.
Hung Liu’s work is very sad. Much of her imagery is that of oppression, hunger and war. Yet it is infused with images of birds, flowers, fruit, abundance. It is achingly and terrifyingly beautiful. When I see her work, I see a snapshot of the human story, fraught with heartache and awe, all in one breath.
And paintings, very much like music, can move through you and change you, if you let them. Not every painting–actually very few paintings. But if you look hard enough, and for long enough, there can be moments where to look at a piece of art can be a very spiritual experience. It is a different painting for different people. It’s a subtle moment and has to happen in the exact right way. But for me, standing in front of Hung Liu’s work, I was reminded of one of the reasons I think art matters.
I paint for the act of painting. Painting for me is a meditation, a way of life. Yet I was reminded in that museum how a painting can reach across miles and miles, and literally hundreds of years. It can take the thoughts and experiences of one individual, and in a moment, impact another individual without ever meeting.
Hung Liu’s work means something different to her than it does to me. But the fact that it means SOMETHING to me is a profound truth of the human experience. She paints for herself in her studio.
Years later, what she has done reverberates in me, a stranger.
Thank you Hung Liu. Keep painting for us all.