Since she first came to prominence in 1981 as designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, Maya Lin has constantly crossed boundaries between architect and artist, landscape designer and monument maker.
A new exhibit at Washington's Corcoran Gallery of Art shows her in yet another role: Lin the environmentalist. When she's not creating civic monuments or enlivening urban plazas, it turns out, she creates large- and small-scale studies of natural phenomena - mountains, rivers and oceans - and puts them into museum settings where they can be contemplated from above, below and sideways.
Her creations include a Colorado mountain range fashioned from recycled wood products, an Antarctic seascape mapped with aluminum tubing, and a scale model of the Potomac River depicted with metal pins. The granddaddy of them all is a mini-mountain made from 2-by-4 boards standing on end, suggesting how Egypt's pyramids might have turned out if made of lumber. One verdict? Great for sledding.
Maya Lin: Systematic Landscapes offers a timely look at Lin's growth as an artist and form-maker just as she is about to turn 50 and nearly 30 years after her boldly modern design for the Vietnam memorial demonstrated that war monuments could be something other than old white guys on horses. It also shows how she has used her design skills to become an advocate for the environment.
This is clearly art with a purpose. By bringing "nature" indoors - putting it under cover, in effect - Lin makes it possible for us to visualize parts of the globe that we don't normally see, and realize how much they need protection.
"It grew out of a desire to take what I do outside and bring it inside," Lin said last week. "I thought, what if I could bring a hill inside - take it up to the ceiling, maybe even let people walk on it. ... These works are asking us to pay close attention to the world around us."
Organized by the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle, this is the second solo art exhibit for Lin, an Ohio native who studied at Yale University and is best known for monuments such as the Vietnam memorial and the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Ala.
In some parts of Systematic Landscapes, Lin documents places actually found in nature. In others, she creates imaginary landscapes. In both cases, she has her own distinctive way of presenting natural forms and phenomena.
For a study on landlocked seas, Lin creates plywood sculptures that correspond to the shape of each body of water, turning the "seas" into solid objects. To convey an Antarctic waterway, she sculpts metal tubing like a fishnet and suspends it near a gallery ceiling, inviting viewers to gaze up from below. To depict a mountain range near her summer home in Colorado, Lin built a facsimile from sheets of particle board, then carved it into sections so museumgoers can walk through the passageways like latter-day Paul Bunyans.
In smaller, three-dimensional "sketches," Lin breaks glass to suggest fissures in Earth's surface. She takes old atlases and slices into the pages to accentuate topological features on maps, such as a South American rain forest. The largest installation, her mound of 2-by-4s, looks like a steep hillside from some angles and an ocean swell from others. Seen from above, it suggests pixels on a computer screen, forming a satellite image. What remains constant about these works is Lin's abiding search to show forms and phenomena that can't easily be grasped in just the right ways, so they won't be ignored.
In the past, Lin has sounded a bit uncomfortable, even defensive, about her multipronged approach to design. "I feel I exist on the boundaries," she has said, echoing Henry David Thoreau. "Somewhere between science and art, art and architecture, public and private, east and west. I am always trying to find a balance between these opposing forces ... the place where opposites meet."
That refusal to compromise, or take a one-size-fits-all approach, is the strength of this show and her work as an environmentalist. One can't help but marvel at her probing nature, her exploratory spirit, her ability to stand just about any subject on its head to make a point.
In the end, Lin's investigations may not provide all the answers, but they definitely show her desire to ask the right questions. By presenting so many ways to visualize the world, she offers reason for hope that there are just as many ways to solve its problems.
if you go
Maya Lin: Systematic Landscapes runs through July 12 at Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 17th St. N.W., Washington. Tickets are $8-$10. Call 202-639-1700 or go to corcoran.org.