In 2011, Oakland artist Hung Liu began a series of small paintings based on photographs of her mother's Beijing apartment taken while she lay in a hospital.

A head of sprouting garlic. Fuzzy blue house slippers. Yellow rubber cleaning gloves. Rendered in thick strokes of oil paint, the canvases are masterful observations of the every day. But they're also much more. Completed one year after her mother's death, the paintings give viewers an intimate glimpse into the artist's world while memorializing a life.

OAKLAND MUSEUM OF CALIFORNIAHung Liu’s powerful work ìGoddess of Love, Goddess of Liberty,î is part of an Oakland Museum of California retrospective
OAKLAND MUSEUM OF CALIFORNIA Hung Liu's powerful work ìGoddess of Love, Goddess of Liberty,î is part of an Oakland Museum of California retrospective on the influential artist. ( omc )

And while vastly different in scale than most of the monumental works displayed in "Summoning Ghosts: The Art of Hung Liu," a comprehensive retrospective that opened Saturday at the Oakland Museum of California, the series of diminutive canvases bearing Liu's emotive brushwork are just as powerful as her larger, better-known paintings. Using photography and daily life as a starting point, Liu illustrates her take on personal and cultural history, crafting visually stunning narratives that unite past and present.

Cultures collide


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Liu has been creating such work since emigrating to the United States from China nearly three decades ago. A bicultural artist, she marries Eastern and Western techniques in her paintings and installations. She also questions and recasts her cultural history, paying tribute to the Chinese men, women and children she observes in vintage photographs from various eras.

The exhibit, which will go on a two-year national tour after it closes June 30, comes on the heels of an exhibit at Mills College, where she teaches. The Oakland Museum collection shows that Liu has been exploring such conceptual and artistic ground without her work ever growing formulaic or stale. In the late 1980s, she created works like "Tang Ren Jie (Tang People's Street)" and "Peeking Opera," both on display.

The latter canvas shows the figure of a veiled bride taken from an antique black-and-white photograph. There's also an image of a tank rolling in Tiananmen Square -- the site of a 1989 massacre in which troops killed hundreds of government protesters. The piece also features a large metal shell casing resting on the floor.

In "Goddess of Love, Goddess of Liberty," Liu juxtaposes a painting of an erotic Chinese vase with the portrait of young woman whose feet have been deformed by foot binding. A small blank chalkboard hangs beside the canvas, level to the woman's head. A broom -- symbolizing the housework a woman with bound feet could never do because of her status and condition -- hangs at her side. In these pictures and others, Liu blurs lines between painting and sculpture, grouping seemingly disparate elements in new, complex ways.

Art reflects life

Curator René de Guzman has gathered some of the best examples of Liu's assemblage paintings and other pieces from every stage of her career, including a biting self-portrait that was part of an early installation dealing with immigration. There's also a short video riffing on the Chinese war film "Daughters of China," which bilingual wall text explains Liu found deeply inspiring. An artist of incredible skill in diverse media, Liu has created several video works, including a major new video installation going on display in June at the San Jose Museum of Art.

Examples of pieces focusing on China's last dynasty and those inspired by photographs of prostitutes are also included among the 80 or so works on view, as are large canvases inspired by major world events such as 2008's Beijing Olympics and the deadly Sichuan earthquake (including the powerful work "Richter Scale").

Jarring and beautiful

Also moving is "September 2001," a large picture in which a bird merges with the head of a young woman. The surreal collision and its resulting whorls of color, washes and paint drips create an image that is both jarring and beautiful.

Staying true to the museum's mission to provide viewers with an interactive experience, organizers have placed copies of the photographs the artist uses as source material at two sitting areas in the exhibit. It's an inspired move; their inclusion provides a fascinating window into Liu's creative process and make her lush, powerful work all the more accessible.

'Summoning Ghosts:
The Art of Hung Liu'

Through: June 30
Where: Oakland Museum of California, 10th and Oak streets
Hours: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesdays, Thursdays and weekends; 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Fridays
Tickets: $6-$12;
http://museumca.org
Coming up: "Questions From the Sky: New Work by Hung Liu," June 6-Sept. 29; San Jose Museum of Art; www.sjmusart.org