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Maya Lin

Systematic Landscapes

The 49-year old sculptor and architect Maya Lin is best known for her design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, a monument that attests to the artist’s ability to elicit emotion from a viewer through minimal attempts at representation, and a concurrent reliance on the associative factors of vision and memory to create the desired response. Lin’s monumental approach to her sculpture can also be found in her recent exhibition at the de Young Museum, “Maya Lin: Systematic Landscapes", which follows on the heels of her recent installation at the new California Academy of Sciences.

Lin’s installation, “Where the Land Meets the Sea", renders a sea bed off the coast of San Francisco. While Lin, a passionate environmentalist, isn’t the sort of artist to hit a spectator over the head with a conclusive representation, the installation’s attention to our civilization’s tenuous connection to nature, as well as its debilitating exploitation of it, is beautifully palpable. Likewise, Lin’s exhibition at the de Young uses her penchant for abstraction to physicalize something that remains as tangible to us as a Google map: our own geography -- which, while continually apprehended, is typically relegated to a remote report on the effects of global warming rather than a visceral experience.

There is a remarkable subtlety in Lin’s work that almost makes one think of the Situationists’ dialectical perspective of art, which, rather than being an elevated idea or once-removed commentary on life, is seamlessly a part of it. Similarly, Lin’s pieces are not ostentatious or preoccupied with their own aesthetics. Small- and large-scale forms made from natural materials coalesce to create astounding yet simple renderings of geographical phenomena.

In an era in which our current environmental situation has created a great deal of cultural exigency around the future (yet “sustainability” largely remains an advertising boilerplate), there is a comforting tactility to Lin’s pieces. While her representations can seem almost scientific at times, like blueprints for a new territory, Lin’s three-dimensional modeling of seabeds and mountain strata is perpetually engaging, with just the right balance between familiarity and foreignness.

Lin’s pieces include “Water Line", a suspended wire sculpture representing an Atlantic Ocean seabed that plunges into spectators’ line of vision, a disorienting effect. “2x4 Landscape” reveals Lin’s interest in perspective as a phenomenon that shapes our relationship to nature. From one perspective, it is viewed as a 10-foot-tall wave; from another, it’s a hill. “Blue Lake Pass” is made up of pulled-apart pieces of particleboard that represent a Colorado mountain range, segmented into several portions to render the effect of the viewer peering through the mountains’ many layers. Lin’s “Bodies of Water” series reveals more pieces of stacked plywood that represent the varying water volumes of the Caspian, Black, and Red Seas.

But her oeuvre isn’t limited to already-existing landforms and bodies of water; also on display are a series of imagined landscapes and alternative atlases, which serve to suggest humanity’s effect on the world’s ever-transforming topography. Lin’s engagement with multiple perspectives is as literal as it is philosophical. Indeed, while her segmentation technique allows us to recognize and interact with the unseen forces that shape nature, it is simultaneously mechanical and map-like -- its eerie precision reminding us of the manner in which we have parceled out the land and sanctioned a unilateral, ownership-based relationship to nature.

Lin is not an artist who is interested in overt political messages. Similar to her outdoor monuments, the works in the exhibition are tied to the way we view them rather than to some predetermined tenet meant to steward our dissection of Lin’s art. The fact that Lin chooses to focus on things such as ocean floors and mountain strata is incontestably tied to the idea of observing (and forming an emotional connection to) the unobservable -- those natural processes that have gone on for millennia, yet as we know, can be compromised with just a modicum of destructive human activity. And fragile as that connection between earth and humanity may be, Lin’s representations never overlook its sacredness.

The exhibition continues through January 18, 2009.