Maya Lin at the Arts Club of Chicago

by Victor M. Cassidy

Blue Lake Pass (2006)

The 1982 Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC, put Maya Lin on the map. Subsequent projects, both architectural and sculptural, have kept her there.  “A strong respect and love for the land exists throughout my work,” Lin writes in Boundaries (2000) a memoir.  “I cannot remember a time when I was not concerned with environmental issues.” Her work exists “on the boundaries . . . between science and art, art and architecture, public and private, east and west,” she adds. “I am always trying to find a balance between these opposing forces, finding the place where opposites meet.”

Lin achieves that balance in her sculpture, where she applies the techniques of art to scientific source material. Her work depicts the earth’s topography using a visual language that comes from mapping.

We see this in her exhibition of nine sculptures and two pastel rubbings at the Arts Club of Chicago (until April 23). Lin uses a variety of materials—spruce, pine, fir, plywood, particleboard, silver, steel pins, wire, and blown glass. She takes graphic information that we expect to view from above and displays it vertically on the wall, making us see it afresh. She scales everything to impress, but never to overwhelm and makes brilliant use of shadow to intensify her effects.

Blue Lake Pass (2006) fills the entire front room at the Arts Club. It is 20 three-ft. x three-ft. particleboard blocks that range up to six-ft. high. The blocks, which Lin made by cutting sheets of particleboard to shape, standing them vertically, and gluing them together, follow the contours of a pass in the Rocky Mountain back range.

To make Blue Lake Pass, the artist marked a grid of lines on a topographic map of the area, followed these lines to cut the map into twenty pieces, used software to replicate the earth’s contours as shown on the map, and fabricated the blocks. In exhibition, the blocks are pulled apart, leaving passages so visitors can walk through the constructed landscape. “I wanted to shift one’s perspective about the land,” Lin wrote for an earlier showing of this work. “Allowing a viewpoint that is more geologic in character.”

Shadow, which reinforces the linear, rhythmic qualities of Blue Lake Pass is critical to its success. To make this large work welcoming, Lin uses pale tan particleboard that seems soft. Tiny bits of wood in this material make it seem to sparkle.

Filling much of the back room at the Arts Club, Flow (2009) is a companion piece to Blue Lake Pass. Instead of rendering topography with lines, Lin stands two by fours of spruce, pine, and fir vertically to make a constructed landscape whose form suggests pixilation. She leaves imperfections and anomalies in the sculpture’s surface to distance it from the mechanical.

Wire Landscape (2006)

Shadow is essential to Reversing the Flow (2010), a ten-ft.-high line of pins stuck closely together on a wall to make a three-dimensional drawing that traces the course of the Chicago River (Lin fabricated this piece specifically for the Arts Club show). The shadow, which mostly looks like tall letter Xs, changes direction from the top to the bottom of Reversing the Flow. It may fall on the left side of the pins or the right side. Sometimes it projects beneath the pins or seems to disappear. The changing shadow fortifies the work’s linearity and makes it seem to move.

Lin has used water in her work, either literally as in some outdoor sculptures, or as a visual source. Colorado River (2008) is a wall-mounted silver casting whose form suggests the way water cuts through the landscape to create a river. Lin apparently poured molten silver into molds, let the silver flow and harden–and then joined the resulting castings to make a tactile, sculptural drawing that measures five feet from top to bottom.

Mapping is the essence of Wire Landscape (2006), a wall-mounted grid of steel wire that suggests computerized renderings of the earth’s topography. There are nodes in the grid where the wires cross and the wires extend out raggedly in all four directions before disappearing into holes drilled in the wall. There’s a peak-like projection at the center of Wire Landscape. Irregular shadows on the wall add complexity to this sculpture, intensify its linear qualities, and distance it from its sources.

Caspian Sea (2006) transforms a body of water into a pedestal sculpture. Its source is a hydrographic map which shows the shape of the two connected basins that hold the Caspian. Using this map as her guide, Lin cut sheets of baltic birch plywood to shape, exaggerated the vertical dimension to strengthen the sculpture’s form, and glued the plywood sheets together.

The result is an odd double form whose large base sits on the pedestal and whose second, smaller base hangs in the air. A large, pale-colored sheet of plywood, which suggests the water surface, joins the two bases together. This top sheet, which outlines the Caspian, seems both mysterious and seductive. The rougher, darker sides of the form give it density.

Maya Lin’s show is a sculptural tour de force, which will surely be counted among the year’s best. Go see it.

The Arts Club of Chicago is located at 201 East Ontario Street. Founded in 1916, this private club is best-known for its long history of modernist art exhibitions. At one time or another, the club has exhibited virtually every major contemporary artist. Visit often.