The subject of the show is our multicultural selves

March 26, 1995|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

In more ways than we realize, we're all connected -- you, me and everybody else in the world. All it takes is finding out how.

That's the lesson of "Can-ton: The Baltimore Series," an exhibit of 20 paintings created by Chinese-American artist Hung Liu. "We don't realize how much we share that can be understood by others," she says. In "Can-ton," presented by the Contemporary and on view in a former bank in Baltimore's Canton section, Liu shows us ourselves.

Over here is Babe Ruth. Over there, the tomb of a ship's captain who arrived in Baltimore 210 years ago. On another wall, a group of immigrant youngsters working in a turn-of-the-century canning factory. Put 'em all together, they spell us. And it took Hung Liu to put 'em all together.

Born in China 46 years ago, Liu came to this country in 1984 and is now professor of fine arts at Mills College in Oakland, Calif. Since she came to the United States, Liu has built a major reputation with an art that explores identity -- an identity both personal and universal.

Among her best-known works are paintings based on 100-year-old photographs of Chinese prostitutes with bound feet. The women were posed in the context of Western objects such as automobiles and telephones in order, oddly enough, to make them more attractive to the Chinese men who hired them. These works therefore relate to such widespread issues as gender oppression and Western and Eastern cross-cultural stereotypes -- issues that in one way or another affect us all.

"Liu is . . . searching for the identity that is not in her identity papers, . . . not in one's passport photograph, . . . not that of the self one has prostituted to society, . . . not simply that of gender and citizenship but generically human. Her art is the instrument of that search," wrote art historian and Cornell University professor Donald Kuspit on the occasion of a 1993 show of her works.

Liu's distinguished reputation led The Contemporary's director, George Ciscle, and curator, Lisa Corrin, to visit her in Oakland last summer to propose that she execute a body of work to be shown here.

To their delight, Liu did not simply continue in the vein of Chinese-based imagery she had been using. She decided to accept the option they offered to study Baltimore's connections with China as a possible basis for the work she would produce.

Coming here in October, she visited museums and other sites and incorporated what she learned here into the present series.

A crucial time

The Baltimore invitation came at a crucial time for her, Liu says. "Last year I revisited my homeland, and comparing myself with friends in the homeland, I found I was so much American in many ways," she says. "In terms of lifestyle, attitude, behavior. It was a personal milestone in my life here."

And 1994 was another kind of milestone. "It was the 10th #F anniversary of coming to this country, and I felt that this was now my new home, and I didn't have to confine myself to only Chinese imagery."

Visiting local museums, Liu found many points of identity. At the Maryland Historical Society's maritime collection, she discovered the story of Capt. John O'Donnell, who came to Baltimore in 1785 on the ship Pallas, loaded with stuff brought from Canton, China: tea, silks, porcelains.

Sale of this material made O'Donnell a wealthy man. He married a local woman, Sarah Chew Elliott, and eventually amassed an estate of 2,500 acres which he called Canton -- site of the present-day East Baltimore area called Canton.

The Contemporary, which normally mounts its exhibitions in empty buildings located in areas relevant to the art itself, decided to capitalize on the Canton connection. The former Canton National Bank, at the corner of Clinton and Elliott streets in Canton, provided an excellent site.

Today, the exhibit hangs in the small building's main banking room and the massive-doored, walk-in safe that opens from it. Inside the safe is Liu's shaped canvas in the form of Captain O'Donnell's Egyptian-inspired tomb in Baltimore's Westminster Cemetery.

But that's only one of the show's 20 canvases. In her voyage of discovery here, Liu found much else to relate to.

At the Baltimore Museum of Industry, she discovered pictures of immigrant children working in Baltimore canning factories. Not only is Liu an immigrant, but Canton was at one time so important a center of Baltimore's canning industry that many called it Can-town.

At the Peale Museum of the Baltimore City Life Museums, Liu discovered 1958 photographs of Baltimore's Chinatown, now largely dispersed but then still a considerable presence in the Park Avenue corridor between Fayette and Franklin streets.

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