The child of parents who grew up during the Cultural Revolution in China and immigrated from Beijing to New York in the early 1980s, Livien was compelled to explore her history after realising that through her childhood in Massachusetts she had “adopted a visual memory of American history which did not highlight the immigrant communities that evolved here”. Captivated by the photographs of Genthe and John Thomson’s ethnographic surveys of Chinese trading ports, but simultaneously troubled by their misrepresentations, Livien developed a desire to create “portraiture from within the Chinese community”.
The artist’s interest in painting began in childhood, when they began practising traditional Chinese painting. Later taking oil painting as a college art major, Livien got into acrylics and gouache when living in Oakland, California. They now reside in Milwaukee, Wisconsin where they work from their apartment studio.
Being drawn to colours that they “associate with sunrise and sunset-times of transition and daily possibility” Livien’s paintings have an awe-inspiring palette and such a delicate, considered finish. “I try to render the way that sunlight feels against the skin, like a caress of the subjects in the painting.” Another recognisable quality of the artists work is their repetition of imagery, specifically hands and fruit. Sometimes the hands frame the face of the subject, and the fruit lies half eaten. And, sometimes the two images come together – a model’s hands lazily peel an orange, another clasps an apple, mid-bite.
Livien explains that their focus on hands is a means a of referencing both manual labour that characterised the first major wave of Chinese immigration and their connection to Chinese culture and cooking; “I like to paint hands to commemorate the cultural legacies and ‘acts of care’ passed down from the generations before us.” Whereas the fruit has a more specific reference – “when ‘paper sons and daughters’ were preparing to be interrogated at Angel Island Immigration Station, they memorised the details of their new identities using something called ‘coaching notes’ which were sometimes secretly sent to them inside fruit.” And, simultaneously, when placed in the hands of women, Livien intends for it to be a metaphor for sexual agency. Paper Suns is a series that demands people’s attention, not only with its enrapturing beauty, but also with its rich, and enlightening context. You can currently see Livien’s work at their exhibition Ka-la-fo-ne-a, which is running at Friend’s Indeed gallery in San Francisco until 23 March.