OAKLAND -- Viewing the wild spectrum of artist Hung Liu's work -- from a massive mound of 205,000 fortune cookies atop intersecting railroad ties to giant ship-shaped canvases weathered with Liu's trademark technique of dripped linseed oil -- one would never guess the rigid training she received in her homeland China.

As a young artist learning her craft in the mid-20th century, Liu was limited to works that represented the official view of society under Chairman Mao Zedong. Even the artistic disciplines were firmly separated from one another.

"In China, when I went to the best art institute in Beijing, everything was so tight, so compartmentalized, only focused on one discipline -- you did sculpture only, or drawing only, or mural only. It's different here in America," Liu said, laughing gently at the Mills College Art Museum as she pointed to the mound of cookies, her striking installation, "Jiu Jin Shan" or "Old Gold Mountain," meant to symbolize the shattered dreams of Chinese workers who came West to find fortune.

"Is this sculpture?" she asked. "Who knows? Here you can do everything."

And she has. Liu, a professor of studio arts at Mills for more than 20 years and one of the first Chinese artists to establish a career in the West, is considered one of the most significant Chinese-American contemporary artists living today. This year her work is the focus of two back-to-back exhibits in the East Bay: "Hung Liu: Offerings" runs through March 17 at the Mills museum, followed by a major retrospective of her work, "Summoning Ghosts," at the Oakland Museum of California from March 16 through June. The show will then embark on a two-year national tour. And the San Jose Museum of Art, where she already has several works, offers a new exhibit, "Questions From the Sky: New Work by Hung Liu" June 6 through Sept. 29.

During her career, Liu has received two painting fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, and her work has been exhibited at the Smithsonian Institution, the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, the National Museum of American Art and the Walker Center.

She's internationally known for her dramatic paintings, which often layer historical images with scenes from her own life or those of everyday people who didn't make it into the history books. The blurry linseed-oil technique is "to give the feel of distant memory," Liu said, and the inability to bring things from the past into focus.

"What I love about her work -- you can look at it and see all these layers of history embedded there, so many things you can pull out about immigration, emigration," said Stephanie Hanor, director of the Mills museum. "But it's not didactic. It's the history of China mingling with her own personal history."

For René de Guzman, OMCA's senior curator of art, Liu's body of work "reminds us of the important role of art to represent reality from the perspective of the individual's experience," he said.

Hung Liu, of Oakland, a Chinese-American artist and Mills College professor of art, during an interview at Mills College in Oakland, Calif., on Monday,
Hung Liu, of Oakland, a Chinese-American artist and Mills College professor of art, during an interview at Mills College in Oakland, Calif., on Monday, Jan. 21, 2013. Liu's art work will be on exhibit at the Mills College Art Museum from January 23, to March 17, 2013. (Doug Duran/Staff) ( Doug Duran )

Born in 1948 in Changchun, China, Liu came of age during Mao's Cultural Revolution. As a young woman, she was sent to labor in a remote village and learn a distorted account of Chinese history. She later earned a degree at Beijing Teacher's College before studying mural painting at Beijing's Central Academy of Fine Art. After many years working as an artist and teacher in China, she was offered a scholarship in the graduate studio-art program at UC San Diego, finally immigrating to the United States in 1984.

"It took four years to get my visa," Liu said. "Chinese had started to come to the U.S. for education at that point, but most were studying engineering, chemistry -- you know, real things. It was pretty weird to be studying art from a socialist country."

Hanor is thrilled to display some of Liu's large-scale installations at Mills.

"Hung is well-known as a painter, a legacy that's really embedded in the studio arts program here," Hanor said. "But even many of her students don't know she's been doing installations from early in her career, stemming out of the mural tradition."

In the exhibit, the 40-foot-long mural spans one full wall. "Music of the Great Earth, 2" is a tribute to a public mural Liu created years ago in China, which was destroyed when the building was torn down. Against a background of deep blues and purples, scenes blur together in layers and layers of images, almost like double negatives.

"This is an image of my Chinese passport, and here's my green card," Liu said, moving back and forth along the wall to point out details. "Here's me when I was in college. We were sent to the military to learn to fight, so here I am with my semi-automatic rifle. I was a pretty good shooter."

She sees it as a joining of her personal history with that of China.

"It's a look at the way history plays out and how history is written by the winners," she says. "How with time and perspective, things are remembered differently."

Follow Angela Hill at Twitter.com/giveemhill.

Hung Liu
Age: 65
Residence: Oakland
Claim to fame: Mills College professor, considered one of the most significant Chinese-American artists of our day.
Quote: "The exhibit, 'Offerings,' is about things in the past, long gone. It has a memorial kind of dimension to it."

Hung Liu exhibits
Mills College Art Museum
What: "Hung Liu: Offerings"
When: Through March 17
Where: 5000 Macarthur Blvd., Oakland
Details: http://mcam.mills.edu

Oakland Museum of California
What: "Summoning Ghosts: The Art of Hung Liu"
When: March 16 through June 30
Where: 1000 Oak St., Oakland
Details: www.museumca.org


SAN JOSE MUSEUM OF ART
What: "Questions From the Sky: New Work by Hung Liu"
When: June 6-Sept. 29
Where: 110 S. Market St., San Jose
Details: www.sjmusart.org