Skip to main content
Humanities LibreTexts

12.3: Contemporary Figurative (2000 - Present)

  • Page ID
  • \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    ( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\)

    \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\)

    \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\AA}{\unicode[.8,0]{x212B}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorA}[1]{\vec{#1}}      % arrow\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorAt}[1]{\vec{\text{#1}}}      % arrow\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorB}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorC}[1]{\textbf{#1}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorD}[1]{\overrightarrow{#1}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorDt}[1]{\overrightarrow{\text{#1}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectE}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash{\mathbf {#1}}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)


    Contemporary figurative art is created in the twenty-first century and represents forms, figures, or images. Figurative art based on people and stories has become a dominant part of the art world. Although figurative work has been created for centuries, the contemporary styles are new, innovative, and non-traditional. Global boundaries are gone, and the standards for European-Western art are jettisoned. Figures become reconstructed, paint jumps and slashes across the image, and colors are bright and conflicting. The designs, styles, and imagery vary; however, a few themes cross through the work. One central theme resounding through the artwork is color; it is bright, colorful, and mixed. Another reverberating concept is exploring cultural identity, racism, and heritages. 

    Since the early 2000s, figurative art has exploded worldwide, emphasizing identity politics. Figurative art might depict the raw reality of life for people in war zones or poverty. Governments frequently try to control art, wanting to quash individual identity and free thought, deleting family ties and centuries of traditions. Artists rebel against controls and create images of life’s realities. Contemporary artists of color can portray their heritage and interests to represent different cultures. Artists included in this section are:   

    • Chiho Aoshima (1974-)
    • Yue Minjun (1962-)
    • Fang Lijun (1963-)
    • Takashi Murakami (1962-)
    • Christine Ay Tjoe (1973-)
    • Liu Xiaodong (1963-)
    • Zhang Xiaogang (1958-)
    • Lim Khim Katy (1978-)
    • Hung Liu (1948-2021)
    • Jitish Kallat (1974)

    Chiho Aoshima 

    Chiho Aoshima (1974-) positions her figures in a more haunting landscape, balancing the whimsical and the more surreal fantasy. She was born in Tokyo and studied economics at Hosei University. Aoshima did not find the subject exciting, and after she learned about Adobe Illustrator and graduated from the university, she abandoned economics to pursue art. Aoshima said about her art, "My work feels like strands of my thoughts that have flown around the universe before coming back to materialize."[1] Her work incorporates spirits believed to exist in the universe and includes them in creating the relationships between nature and humans while visualizing alternative realities.

    Aoshima's work is based on traditional Japanese painting, and she uses modern technology to create her art. Her work is flat with a single plane of depth. She uses digital drawing tools to design the images and reproduces them on immense digital prints, a more simplified manga-looking image. The results often resemble surreal dreamscapes with colorful and cartoon-like images, although the figures usually are in the middle of a dark, disturbing landscape.

    Aoshima is part of the Kaikai Kiki artist group run by Takashi Murakami. Kaikai Kiki means powerful and sensitive, two yin-yang forces. The group is collaborative and follows the ideas of the Superflat imagery found in manga style. The artists in the group use new digital technologies to create and produce their work. Aoshima does her design work in Adobe Illustrator to develop futuristic sci-fi imagery. Her work is easy to replicate in new technological printing processes. The way the group works is similar to the ukiyo-e art from the past. Ukiyo-e was also made in a workshop with a talented, skilled leader who taught younger artists.

    The Divine Gas (12.3.1) portrays only part of the complete mural of an enormous young girl lying in a verdant landscape. Around her are butterflies, deer, and other images, producing an idyllic place. Storm clouds and the storm genie gather in the sky. Some figures tumble to the ground, while others still wait in the clouds for their eventual fate. Aoshima has created a fantastical daydream. The installed mural in Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art was 12.8 meters long. When the mural was removed for another installation, Aoshima required the museum to cut the image into small squares no bigger than 10 x 10 centimeters. She had the museum send her photos of the destroyed image to ensure the destruction was completed correctly and small pieces could not become a souvenirs.

    closeup of a girl laying on the grass
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): The Divine Gas (2006, drawn on Macintosh G4 computer, adhesive vinyl print, 12.8 m.) (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

    Some of Aoshima's work may be seen as catastrophic scenes where nature rages, and humans are battered. She uses conflicting colors to create emotion and demonstrate the power of nature. Magma Spirit Explodes (12.3.2) and Tsunami is Dreadful (12.2.3) portray the human mind's perception of nature's wrath. The 12-meter mural has two parts, one fiery destruction and the other, the giant wave of a tsunami tidal wave. On the Magma Spirit side, she used a candy-colored young girl spitting out the magma while looking at the mirror, reflecting her more ghostly-like face. Conversely, the brilliant blues wave crashes onto the Magna-filled land like two warring factions. The mural's long horizontal design is reminiscent of past Japanese handscroll paintings, unfolding the apocalyptic image across the scene.

    girl with flames surrounding her
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Magma Spirit Explodes. Tsunami is Dreadful Part 1 (2004, chromogenic print, 12 m.) (CC BY-NC 2.0)
    mural with a city and a tsunami
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Magma Spirit Explodes. Tsunami is Dreadful Part 2 (2004, chromogenic print, 12 m.) (CC BY-NC 2.0)

    Yue Minjun 

    Yue Minjun (1962-) was born in China, where his family worked in the oil fields and constantly moved to follow the work. After high school, Yue became an electrician, painting when he had spare time. In 1990, he moved to Beijing in a district supporting an artist's village. China was changing from some of the older concepts to new postmodernity. The artists also were part of a revolution in Chinese art. Yue worked in multiple disciplines, including sculpture, watercolor, and print. He became known for his unusual depiction of images frozen in laughter. Yue was also part of the attitude of Cynical Realism in China, ridiculing political and commercial views. Yue's paintings were usually based on self-portraits that were humorous and lighthearted. He frequently based a concept on well-known European compositions or iconic Chinese images Yue adapted to his aesthetics. Theorist Li Xianting described Yue's self-portraits as "a self-ironic response to the spiritual vacuum and folly of modern-day China."[2] 

    Yue usually portrays his portraits as distorted and grotesque, with bright pink skin and large, toothy laughs. Laughter was a way to lighten pain and an antidote to the cruelties of life. Free Sky No 1 (12.3.4) and Untitled (12.3.5) reflect Yue's exaggerated people images of himself frozen in laughter. In the first image, Yue thrusts himself forward in the scene, wearing only his white underwear. In Untitled, he replicates himself five times, each person wearing a ludicrous crown. One projection viewed in his work is the concept a grand smile does not mean the person is happy. Yue used simple basic colors to high contrast with the overly bright pink people. The open mouth and a large set of teeth represent the boredom and emptiness of the Chinese people at the time. Yue's art was considered experimental, contrary to traditional Chinese art images, and a reflection of Cynical Realism, an attitude ridiculing China's political and commercial position. His work mocked himself and the community; the faces were a trademark of his work.

    pink man laughing with clouds
    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): Free Sky No 1 (2012, oil on canvas, 100 x 90 cm) (See-ming Lee (SML)CC BY-NC 2.0)
    several pink men with party hats and birds
    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): Untitled (2005, oil on canvas, 220.3 x 200 cm) (livvyaCC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

    Yue made twenty-five Contemporary Terracotta Warriors (12.3.6) based on the legendary Terracotta Army. The thousands of Terracotta Warriors each had distinctive faces and clothing. Each statue in Yue's sculptures was based on Yue's self-portrait, which created a group of laughing soldiers who were positioned and holding tightened fists, making a satirical gesture. He believed using the same image and expression displayed the loss of individuality more accurately than distinct portrayals. Yue believed laughter represented how helpless people were when their rights were taken away. 

    bronze statues with their hands over their ears
    Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\): Contemporary Terracotta Warriors (2005, bronze) (Paul StevensonCC BY 2.0)

    Fang Lijun

    Fang Lijun (1963-) was born in China and attended the Children's Cultural Place for schooling. He studied ceramics for three years at the Hebei Light Industry Technology and then changed his mind after becoming fascinated with oil painting. After studying painting at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, he moved to a small village with other artists like Yue Minjun. They were also part of the Cynical Realists who became disillusioned with China's policies after the actions at Tiananmen Square and the resulting powerlessness of people in the restricted societal structure. Fang was one of the artists who rebelled against traditional Chinese art and modern styles, displaying his disenchantment and anguish. One of Fang's significant themes in his paintings was the bald protagonist, who represented issues of human rights and political oppression.

    980815 (12.3.7) is an image of Fang's typical bald man appearing to be drowning in the water. Bald men in China were considered stupid. Painters were also looked down on at the time. Fang used the comparison to judge people based on their moral character instead of their occupation or appearance. He also used water in many of his paintings. A person drowning in water is like living in China with no voice and powerless in the governmental structure. Metaphorically, one can move through the water safely and speak for oneself or drown in the water or under societal rules.

    orange mans head in blue water
    Figure \(\PageIndex{7}\): 980815 (1998, oil on canvas, 249.8 x 360 cm) (Jeff HowardCC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

    Fang based his painting 30th Mary (12.3.8) on religious paintings found on the ceilings of European churches. The multiple, repetitive doll-like figures all display Fang's facial image. Unlike the church painting where the people ascend into heavenly clouds, Fang painted stormy tornado-like clouds depicting cynicism instead of the ideological assurance of a savior. The small figures are wearing school uniforms, the spots of color adding to the motion. Each of the figures is bald as the apathetic or unintelligent followers of the Chinese government.

    several children floating in clouds
    Figure \(\PageIndex{8}\): 30th Mary (2006, oil on canvas, 400 x 525 cm) (Jeff HowardCC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

    Takashi Murakami

    Takashi Murakami (1962-) was born in Tokyo, Japan. He always wanted to work as an animator and attended Tokyo University of the Arts. Murakami switched to learning the traditional style of Japanese painting to complete his bachelor’s degree. He also received a master’s degree and a Ph. D., becoming disillusioned with the political world around him and the infusion of Western ideas in art. Murakami developed a new style, called “Superflat,” based on a two-dimensional image. The style incorporated the use of flat planes of color. Murakami used different elements of traditional Japanese nihonga and ukiyo-e and the more modern anime in his concepts of Superflat. Murakami also used his designs for commercial merchandise like T-shirts and handbags, blurring the lines between what the Western art structure considers ‘high art’ and the concepts of commercialism.

    Takashi Murakami

    In his New York City studio, Takashi Murakami discusses his three-decades-long practice in which he blends traditional and modern art techniques to create enormous paintings with a visual power unmatched in contemporary art. Murakami talks about his position as an outsider in the Western contemporary art world and his interest in breaking down the boundaries between art and popular culture through collaborations with Kanye West, Louis Vuitton, and Complex. Michael Darling, James W. Alsdorf Chief Curator, is also featured in the video and discusses Murakami's history and accomplishments. They each delve into the origins of Murakami's iconic Mr. DOB, as well as his influences, including Star Wars, natural disasters, and fashion branding.


    Pom & Me: On the Red Mound of the Dead (12.3.9) is a self-portrait of Murakami alongside his dog Pom. They are portrayed in Murakami’s Superflat style, outlined instead of dimensional, with enlarged heads and muted colors. The sizeable contrasting pile of skulls is filled with bright colors, primarily red. The background is also littered with outlines of skulls, many fading away. Over the entire image, Murakami uses eyes as the predominant element. All the skulls in the background, the mound, and the figure have oversized, dominant eyes. Only Pom sits with his eyes closed.  

    man and dog on top of skulls
    Figure \(\PageIndex{9}\): Pom & Me: On the Red Mound of the Dead (acrylic on canvas mounted on board, 2013) (See-ming Lee (SML),CC BY-NC 2.0)

    Takashi Murakami Paints Self-Portraits (12.3.10) was part of Murakami’s Self-Portrait exhibition. The Chrysanthemums series placed the flowers in a circular format. Some of the flowers were white Chrysanthemums, a traditional Japanese flower; others maintained the shape only with bright colors. All the flowers have open, smiling mouths, seemingly in celebration. Murakami’s face and two of his favorite characters, Kaikai and Kiki, float around in the flowers. Each flower and face are outlined and colored following Murakami’s Superflat style. Dimensions are created by size instead of extra lines or shading, allowing the human/character faces to come forward. 

    childrens faces with daisy
    Figure \(\PageIndex{10}\): Takashi Murakami Paints Self-Portraits (BFLVCC BY-NC 2.0)
    The Hysteria of this Flower Explained

    From Kanye West album covers, Kid Cud’s chains, Drake’s hoodies and art pieces with Pharrell, Takashi Murakami’s beaming multi-colored flowers are everywhere. On the surface, Murakami’s flowers seem unconditionally happy and joyful. But there are deeper and darker undertones within these works. This is how Murakami’s flower design has bridged the worlds of fine art, high fashion, and streetwear.


    Christine Ay Tjoe 

    Christine Ay Tjoe (1973-) was born in Bandung, Indonesia, with nearby volcanos and multiple tea plantations. Tjoe graduated from the Bandung Institute of Technology, where she majored in art and design. After graduation, she worked in fashion design before becoming a full-time artist. Tjoe is known for her complex, layered paintings and uses oil bars on canvas and a methodology based on dry-point techniques used in etching and engraving. Tjoe’s work is colorful, with shapes and evidence of her strong strokes. Her focus is based on the human condition and emotions of pain and struggle. Tjoe builds the feelings into her abstracted images, fragments of emotions showing through the abstractions. Tjoe said, “My interest is human beings. In my works, I talk more about what will happen in terms of human trends, local or global; what I see as possibilities in my mind, personal ideas.”[3] In Mischievous Player (12.3.11), Tjoe used bright contrasting colors to develop the layers. The contrasts of red versus black and various tones and hues embody people's and society's hidden emotions and motives. Tjoe starts with an empty canvas and creates a line or smudge with the oil bar, building the image from that starting point. 

    abstract water color
    Figure \(\PageIndex{11}\): Mischievous Player (oil on canvas, 2016, 200 x 230 cm)(Leo ReynoldsCC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
    Christine Ay Tjoe

    Christine Ay Tjoe is shortlisted for the Best Emerging Artist using Painting at the 2015 Prudential Eye Awards. In this interview she shares an insight into her style, methods and inspirations.


    Ceramic elephant with blood spots
    Figure \(\PageIndex{12}\): Elephant Parade – Space for the Three Alphabets (chooyutshingCC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

    In Singapore, multiple artists created artwork on life-sized baby elephants as a part of the Save the Elephants campaign to raise awareness of the need for conservation. Over one hundred elephants (12.3.12) were decorated and auctioned off after the show. Tjoe stated about her work, "I chose red and a neutral base color on this elephant, and I have placed three alphabets around its body for them to be found. The idea is that there could be change in every step, every condition; it depends on our move."[4]

    Elephant Parade

    A musical slideshow of some of the elephants in Worcester's 2021 public art exhibition. The music is Baby Elephant Walk by Henry Mancini.


    Liu Xiaodong 

    Liu Xiaodong (1963-) was born in Liaoning province. When he was only seventeen, Liu moved to Beijing and studied art at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in fine art. He also went to Spain and studied at the Complutense University of Madrid, focusing on Western art techniques. Liu traveled the world looking for global issues created by climate change, economic disorder, or adverse environmental impacts. He wanted to paint people how they were based on local events. Liu frequently uses local, ordinary people as models in his work, positioning them in natural places and painting them as they live. Although his work is based on the realism of world activities, he does not follow the traditional Chinese Socialist Realism style. Instead, he uses loose, vigorous brushstrokes, layering the paint. Liu does not view people as tourists; instead, he paints them according to their culture and locality. 

    One region Liu visited was Uummannaq, Greenland, where he painted large-scale images of local life. While in Greenland, Liu created twelve paintings and eighteen ink drawings for an exhibit called Uummannaq. He spent a lot of time with the children, many living in an orphanage. Liu used the people as his subjects, painting them at the site and incorporating their surroundings. Before he went to Greenland, Liu carried the images most people have of Greenland and the area around it, a poetic ideal of exploration and hunting expeditions amidst spectacular views. However, he found something entirely different. The past way of life for the people based on hunting was no longer allowed. Poverty was all around him in the middle of the incredible landscape. In the first picture (12.3.13), Liu painted children from the orphanage, demonstrating how they handled a spear. In the foreground, the snow has melted, and the children are wearing tennis shoes and sweatshirts, the universal dress of teens worldwide. The background reflects the remains of icebergs in the cold waters. In the second painting (12.3.14), the people are gathered around the table eating, the catch of the day waiting on the table. The deep shadows indicate evening, the sun still bright in the summer sky. The glacier in the background is seemingly incidental to the unique images of the people. 

    several people watching a man with a spear with ice floe
    Figure \(\PageIndex{13}\): Uummannaq exhibit (oil on canvas, 2017) (Hans OlofssonCC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
    several people eating fish with ice in the background
    Figure \(\PageIndex{14}\): Uummannaq exhibit (oil on canvas, 2017) (Hans OlofssonCC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
    We Humans are Strange Animals

    “Artists are like small angels, who fly back and forth,” says the pre-eminent Chinese painter Liu Xiaodong, who believes that the open-mindedness of artists can inspire us to broaden our outlook: “Painting is not directly related to changing society but it is close to having an effect.” In the mind of an artist, Xiaodong argues, there is no such thing as national boundaries, and because they don’t do much practical work, artists rely on their imagination: “He can look and then paint what he sees and show it to you… We need artists to travel between countries to communicate this innocent view of the world.”


    An Orphanage at the End of the World

    What happened when one of China’s foremost painters went on an expedition to Uummannaq in Greenland? Liu Xiaodong here describes his moving experience of portraying children from the northernmost orphanage in the world: “Their survival skills are so strong.”


    Zhang Xiaogang

    Zhang Xiaogang (1958-) was born in Yunnan province, China. His parents were government officials who had four boys. They frequently gave the boys paper and crayons so they would stay busy and out of trouble and a way to express themselves. During the Cultural Revolution, Zhang’s parents were sent to re-education camps, and he went to work on a farm. Zhang knew he wanted to be an artist. After Chairman Mao’s death and the end of the Cultural Revolution, Zhang went to the Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts to study oil painting. Unfortunately, after he graduated, he became depressed and an alcoholic, nearly dying from drinking. In the mid-1980s, he joined the new wave movement when intellectuals and artists spearheaded reform ideals in China. However, in 1989, the protests and suppression of Tiananmen Square ended any reforms. Zhang went to Germany to study Western styles and developed his beliefs as an artist of China. He began to paint the relationships and identities of people, not just government dictates. 

    Zhang frequently used a grayscale palette with intermittent blotches of color. He also alters physical characteristics into a more surrealist style with oversized heads, long noses, and miniature hands. Zhang used physical distortions of a body part to define emotional and psychological feelings. Bloodline (x.x) was one in a series Zhang painted about relationships, particularly within families. He was inspired to create the series about family after looking at old photos from his parents. He does not present them with the Western view of individuality. Zhang focused on the Chinese concept of emphasizing the family, society, and work, which are all intertwined and relational. He brings them together as one. Although in this painting, they appear as a male and female, both images have an androgynous appearance, almost interchangeable. Both are wearing the same glasses and have the same nose, mouth, and eyes. Only the slight change in the shape of the heads and the difference in hairstyle define the two characters. Zhang also made the skin color different hues. He added red lines on the father and daughter, a stamp of belonging and connection. Zhang added patches or lines of color on all of the paintings in the series. When asked why the people in his paintings don’t smile, Zhang simply said he was better at drawing people spacing out. 

    a boy and girl with glasses
    Figure \(\PageIndex{15}\): Bloodline (oil on canvas, 2005, 200 x 260 cm) (mr.pushCC BY-NC 2.0)
    Bloodlines and Family

    Zhang Xiaogang’s discovery of family photographs—considered lost because many albums were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution—inspired his ‘Bloodline’ series. In 1993, Zhang Xiaogang began the ‘Bloodline’ series, which comprises some of the most iconic images in Chinese contemporary art. He established a clear identity as an artist by shedding Western aesthetics to focus on personal narrative and collective memory.


    My Ideal (12.3.16) is an oversized grouping Zhang created with an oil painting in the background and sculptures sitting in front. The five children in the portrait are seated and naked from the waist down. Each child is dressed differently in adult clothing based on the careers their parents plan for the children. The only color in the painting is the middle child with red skin and a green uniform. The military is an elite group in China, and the unique coloring of the child reflects the military’s importance. The sculptures in front characterize the four levels of local society: laborers, peasants, students, and storekeepers. The fifth person is the soldier. In typical style, Zhang does not add pants to his sculptures, exposing the body's intimate places. Zhang used the technique to display the difference between a public image with clothing (only on top) and personal vulnerability (lack of clothing).

    five bronze statues without pants sitting on cubes with picture behind them
    Figure \(\PageIndex{16}\): My Ideal (oil on canvas and five bronze sculptures, 2008, 279 x 500 cm) (SteynardCC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

    Lim Khim Katy 

    Lim Khim Katy (1978-) was born in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. She attended Ho Chi Minh Fine Arts University and graduated in 2001. She also received her Master of Fine Arts from the same university. Lim Khim Katy often reflects on when she was a teenager and encountered people in tremendous poverty and struggling to exist. She also saw very young girls who were forced to marry early and were abused and forced to work through harsh conditions. She also saw how women endured and survived by helping each other and sharing small pleasures. Lim Khim Katy creates her paintings from the life surrounding her in Vietnam's nostalgic homes and landscapes. Lim Khim Katy said, “I love and admire women who have sacrificed everything and persist, and I use my art to express and share my feelings about them. I sincerely appreciate what they have experienced in their lives and hope that somehow my art will honor them as humans and express that even though their lives are gut-wrenchingly difficult, I want others to know about them and understand. I want my art to be a window into their world for others who have never seen what I have seen and come to understand.”[5] Lim Khim Katy worked with her father from the age of 12, helping to illustrate advertising posters. In the period after the war, Lim Khim Katy had to use gouache colors and draw on rough linen because those were the only materials available in postwar Vietnam. 

    The diptych New Law (12.3.17) portrays three workers now deprived of earning a living in their traditional manner. The first person can no longer carry her goods in the baskets slung across her shoulders. The man in the center cannot use his cart to earn a living, and the last woman cannot use a basket. Their jobs have been mechanized, centralized, and assigned by government decree as small individual farms and businesses were destroyed for large collective enterprises. Lim Khim Katy uses muted colors for the painting, outlining the depression people must feel when losing their way of life. Their faces are furrowed and stoic, with an undertone of profound sadness. She used an intense, wide red to emphasize what the people lost. 

    three people kneeling with a cross out red sign
    Figure \(\PageIndex{17}\): New Law (2010, oil on canvas, 78.7 x 99.0 cm) (RoberrificCC BY-NC 2.0)

    Lim Khim Katy generally uses trowels for her landscape paintings to create dimensional effects and brushes for figurative works to achieve detail. In The Sleeping Youth (12.3.18), the girl's face appears relaxed. Lim Khim Katy likes to create incredible detail in people’s eyes because that is where their emotions are displayed. However, Lim Khim Katy often portrays women with their hair blowing straight out from the head. She believes a woman carries her worries in her head, and she has so many concerns they seem to explode. The young woman may be taking time to rest, and her eyes are not visible, her feelings masked; however, her mind is still full of worries, and Lim Khim Katy paints the hair to symbolize the explosion of those worries. 

    girl sitting with long black hair blowing in the wind
    Figure \(\PageIndex{18}\): The Sleeping of Youth (2011, oil on canvas, 96.5 x 88.9 cm) (RoberrificCC BY-NC 2.0)

    In the painting Self Acceptance (12.3.19), the young woman is staring straight ahead, obviously engrossed in a scene. However, the expression on her face is not happy, and looks rather sad or worried. The sun is shining on part of her face, and the wide-brimmed hat creates a shadow on her eyes. Lim Khim Katy captures the detail in her face with her brush and a muted palette. The painting is covered with seal stamps, a tradition usually found in Chinese or Vietnamese paintings before 1945. It is unusual to see them in Lim Khim Katy’s paintings.  

    girls face looking left
    Figure \(\PageIndex{19}\): Self Acceptance (2010, oil on canvas, 99.0 x 78.7) (RoberrificCC BY-NC 2.0)

    Hung Liu

    Hung Liu (1948-2021) is a painter who used mixed media in her works. She was born in China after World War II and the start of turmoil in China as the communists began their march south. Her father was quickly imprisoned, and Hung Liu fled with her aunt to Beijing to escape the fighting. Hung Liu’s mother demolished all the family photos to help protect the family. During China’s Cultural Revolution, she was exiled back to a remote village for re-education, where she tried to study art. Art education was minimal during the revolution and was based on simplistic styles and themes. Cameras were forbidden, although Hung Liu secretly took pictures of the local people she had saved to create drawings for the future. As part of her art training in China, Hung Liu had to paint propaganda images of the great leader Mao Zedong and the ‘happy’ people. She immigrated to the United States in 1984 to study art, explore new techniques not available in China, and enhance her work with multi-media processes. Hung Liu studied at the University of California, San Diego, and obtained her Master of Fine Arts degree. She was also a professor at Mills College. 

    Hung Liu’s work is commonly based on old photographs and historical pictures she had, and she works on canvas with drippy brush strokes and washes as the paint smears. Her images were based on the oppressed, the poor, and the suffering, reflecting the harshness of their lives. “These colorful works feature imagery from traditional and modern Chinese history with emphasis on women and children and reflect themes such as crisis, displacement, and death through a redemptive lens,” says Anne Rose Kitagawa, JSMA Chief Curator of Collections & Asian Art “The creativity of Liu’s mixed-media process, in which she quotes passages from her paintings and then alters, recombines, and transforms them in successive layers of resin, results in a new kind of shimmering hybrid art.”[6]

    Hung Liu on guns, art, history, forced labor, and taboos

    Artist Hung Liu discusses how working in the fields during China’s Cultural Revolution has influenced her art practice. Listen to her explain how she uses washes, drips, and grainy photographs to respond to the precision of Socialist Realism.


    The diptych And the Last Fight Let Us Face (12.3.20) is an excellent example of Hung Liu’s style, with dripping paint and images that display a narrative or implied story. This painting was part of the “Daughters of China” show, where female soldiers fought against the Japanese. These were the images Hung Liu saw as a child, and the sight of one soldier carrying her dead comrade was powerful. The agony of the soldier is reflected in her face, knowing she is facing the same outcome. The top half of each woman is distinct and detailed as the bottom part blends the two, finally dripping into one. Hung Liu used a muted color palette except for the occasional highlights of red. The second part of the diptych is an image of the Buddha’s hand, a citrus fruit frequently part of a Chinese New Year celebration, and represents joy, longevity, and good luck. The symbolism of longevity, happiness, or good luck is contradictory to the image of the two women soldiers, dead or facing death. 

    man carrying a body with a rifle
    Figure \(\PageIndex{20}\): And the Last Fight Let Us Face (2008, oil on canvas, 203.2 x 406.4 cm) (rocorCC BY-NC 2.0)

    All My Ancestors (12.3.21) is an example of how Hung Liu used historical photographs, mixing different parts of a photograph. The painting has a portrait of a young woman with multiple smaller images located in other parts of the painting. She also added flowers, fruit, landscapes, and her signature circles, covering some parts juxtaposed similar to a decoupage image. Anne Rose Kitagawa, a curator of Asian art at the University of Oregon, stated: “Hung Liu found ways to undermine the Western prejudices and exotic fantasies about Chinese people,” says Kitagawa. “And she did interesting things with her mixed media pieces, embellishing them with flower petals and candles almost as though she was adding ritual offerings. And all those drips and circles — she almost vandalizes her work. Such expressionistic elements would not have been welcome in the Chinese socialist realist art she originally studied because they would have undermined the propagandistic message by imposing a destructive element of time.”[7]

    women painted in a theater with fruit
    Figure \(\PageIndex{21}\): All the Ancestors (2011, mixed media triptych, 152.4 x 254.0 cm) (ali eminovCC BY-NC 2.0)

    Shoemakers (12.3.22) was a painting based on the drastic politics in China during the Cultural Revolution. Family relationships and activities like shoemaking were eliminated and pushed into communal structures. Shoemaking was a skill passed from generation to generation, a family working together. In the background are images of people who probably shared the familial structure and skill of those who made shoes. The three people are working on shoes as the bottom half of the painting becomes muddled, with thin lines of paint washing away the portrait of the family. The painting exemplifies how Hung Liu portrayed the workers' humanity and skill in longstanding cultural activities that caused the Cultural Revolution to change forever. 

    three people with birds
    Figure \(\PageIndex{22}\): Shoemakers (1999, oil on canvas, 203.2 x 203.2 cm) (rocorCC BY-NC 2.0)

    Jitish Kallat

    Jitish Kallat (1974) was born in Mumbai, India, and still lives and works there today. He received his Bachelor of Fine Art from the Sir JJ School of Art and started exhibiting his paintings. His work includes painting, sculpture, and installations. Kallat focused his work on the ‘textures and surfaces’ of modern cities. Some of his work is based on historical occurrences with which he intersects the realities of contemporary life. Kallat uses images he finds in the expansive city of Mumbai, which he decodes and treats like a battered puzzle. Although some of his work is bleak and based on the caste system, a housing crisis, or other urban issues, he likes to add a little humor. Kallat extends beyond painting into sculptures and small installations. 

    The paintings are located in a busy railway station in Mumbai and reflect the grittiness of the city as drips of paint trickle down the image, looking like tar or dirt. Different murals cover the station's walls, depicting men sitting informally with little emotion. Baggage Claim (12.3.23) on one of the walls where Kallat scrapes the paint’s surface to display the messiness of the city and creates a feeling of age. Kallat said, “I would peel off paint in places to reveal the white canvas so that in the end, you have a new painting that looks old, like the passing of time.”[8]

    four people sitting holding objects
    Figure \(\PageIndex{23}\): Baggage Claim (2010, acrylic on canvas, bronze, 244 x 518 cm) (melina1965CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

    Kallat continues with his depictions of the realities of life ordinary people face despite political do-good speeches. In Untitled (Eclipse) (12.3.24), he demonstrates the stresses of modern mega-cities. The background in the image portrays a bright cadmium-orange sunset like the background in propaganda portraits. The four children are hugging and seemingly happy while dressed in rags on their malnourished bodies. Their lives are based on problems encountered while surviving in the sewers of Mumbai. Kallat created their hair from the debris and discards on the streets, and it drips down and threatens to consume the children. Kallat stated, “The city street is my university. One finds all the themes of life and art – paint, happiness, anger, violence, and compassion – played out there in full volume.”[9]

    five people with sun rays in the background
    Figure \(\PageIndex{24}\): Untitled (Eclipse) 3 (2007, acrylic on canvas, triptych 272 x 518 cm) (DaffyDukeCC BY-SA 2.0)

    Public Notice 2 (12.3.25) was made from fiberglass shaped in the form of bones and laid out based on the words from Mahatma Gandhi’s speech in the 1930s. Kallat used Gandhi's voice and message to combat the thoughtlessness of the modern world. The speech was one of Gandhi's significant messages in moving to independence from England. The letters appear to be printed until one moves closer and discovers the letters are shaped like bones. The wall of words has a dramatic impact based on its scale of size and the meaning of the actual words. 

    text on an orange wall
    Figure \(\PageIndex{25}\): Public Notice 2 (2015, Resin 4,479 sculptural units, dimension variable) (AnosmiaCC BY 2.0)
    Public Notice 2

    Indian artist Jitish Kallat renders Gandhi’s historic speech in its entirety, letter by letter. Each letter appears to be made from bone, as though Kallat has exhumed these words from their historical resting place. As Kallat says: ‘In today’s terror-infected world, where wars against terror are fought at prime television time, voices such as Gandhi’s stare back at us like discarded relics.’

    Additional text/introduction.



    [1] Chiho Aoshima

    [2] Blanc Magazine

    [3] Christine Ay Tjoe


    [5] Lim Khim Katy

    [6] Jordon Schnitzer Musuem of Art


    [8] Jitish Kallat’s long meditation on life and death in the city

    [9] Jitish Kallat

    • Was this article helpful?