I’ve cut right through the exhibit of Asian American art without giving anything a second glance. They’re gonna have to wait. I’m here at the de Young to see Maya Lin’s Systematic Landscapes and I’m not about to get side tracked. It’s already early afternoon and I lingered longer over a book I was reading at a coffee shop on Balboa than I should have. I want to get to it before the throngs upstairs get bored with Yves St. Laurent and start pouring into the downstairs galleries (not to mention the fact that the exhibit is sponsored by PG&E meaning there’s always the danger they’ll declare a fake Art Crisis and shut everything down pretending there’s a shortage of art).
Abruptly, the Shifting Currents exhibit comes to an end and I step into the first room of Systematic Landscapes. Blue Lake Pass, 2006 is a large scale model of the topography of the Rocky Mountain region rendered in industrial grade pine particleboard. The whole has been segmented into free-standing pillars 3′ X 3′ square and separated, allowing you to drift through the exposed alleyways. It’s fun to come around the corner of one of the tallest slices and see the heads of the other visitors alternately appearing and vanishing behind another dip in the range. The gallery attendants meanwhile are scaring the bejesus out of newcomers to the room by seeming to reprove them with a strident “Ma’am!” before inviting them them to walk between the segmented landscape. Admonitions about handbags and back packs are being strictly enforced though. This might be the most well-guarded collection of particleboard on Earth right now. There’s that distinctive Home Depot smell in the air, but even close-up the material disappears into its new form. The gentle curves of the lower slopes look deceptively like they’d make an ideal reclining surface and the peaks rise up in confectionary mounds.
In the next room is Lin’s Bodies of Water Series which includes representations of the Black Sea, Caspian Sea and the Red Sea. Displayed on plinths, the 3-dimensional sculptures would be difficult to identify without the signage. One takes on the lumpy appearance of the model of an organically grown aircraft carrier, another looks like a tasteless end table carved into the shape of the owner’s beloved home state. I imagine a gardener burying her hands deep into the soil and tearing up a section of sod, the exposed roots and dangling clods hanging heavily beneath. The edges of the flat white tops which represent the surface of the bodies of water spiral off into curling peninsulas that cast gnarled shadows on the gallery floor. From the side, the layers of birch plywood which fill in the depths of the seas mimic the flowing draperies seen inside deep caves.
On a side wall are her Plaster Relief Landscapes, (“all works untitled”). Less dramatic than the previous works, the “existing wall surface is cut, and a carved or modeled plaster relief is inserted” after which the surrounding area is “patched with fresh plaster to make the connection seamless.” I wouldn’t say seamless: there is the air of the bad patch job of a landlord about the area around the works. The plaster gouges are perhaps a bit too subtle in any case: I find more interest in some works in glass cases nearby. The Atlas Landscape works are created from three Rand McNally atlases (the signage for each indicates both the year of publication and the year it was “altered”). Opened to a map of South America showing Southern Argentina and Chile, in Atlas Landscape, The University Atlas, published 1987, altered 2006, we find a graduated hole has been bored into the volume west of Comodoro Rivadavia. The exposed layers of pages beneath reveal text of latitudes and longitude in minutes and seconds, mimicking the form of topographic maps. The excavated paper funnel bottoms out in a placid blue lake (which may or may not be the book’s back cover).
Near the end of the exhibit is Water Line, 2006, an immense canopy created from aluminum tubing which I’ll allow you to discover on your own. We’re headed out of the show proper and upstairs to see the signature work that appears in all the promotional material. Rightly so too, because 2 X 4 Landscape, 2006 is a show stopper. The sprawling work is laid out at the foot of Gerhard Richter’s Strontium in Wilsey Court, kindly placed in the main space to be viewed even by those who have not paid extra for the special exhibit.
With an impressive hidden substructure of supports (watch a fascinating slide show of its construction here), in 2 X 4 Landscape tiny jutting wooden blocks build to a gently sloping pile that falls steeply at the far end. From the side of its most gradual declination, the lines of the blocks look like enormous wrinkles or the points of overlap of an armadillo’s plates. From the cliff-like face on the opposite end, the blocks appear more pronounced, standing out like cenotaphs or skyscrapers crowding a hill. Kids seem to have even more fun with this piece than they did ducking under Water Line, running back and forth to view it from all angles.
I suppose I should close with some deep rumination on landscape stirred by the show but to be honest I enjoyed them most as exercises in themselves. It is sometimes good to be reminded that many of the ways we apprehend the world are constructions of some kind that we become so acclimated to that we do not perceive them as such. Just off the top of my head I think of EKG monitors tracking electrical impulses over time represented by the familiar spiky line, the Joy Division album cover art for Unknown Pleasures describing a pulsar as mountain range. Lin’s work celebrates the product of the painstaking efforts to render in data and re-envision details of the physical world to increase our understanding by making the process itself worthy of aesthetic exploration.