“The shape is the object,” critic Michael Fried once wrote. “At any rate, what secures the wholeness of the object is the singleness of the shape.” This line evokes Maya Lin‘s stunning Vietnam Memorial (she won the commission when she was 21!), the work for which she is best known. There, residing firmly in the shadow of Daniel Chester French’s iconic Lincoln, Lin’s haunting granite work alters the landscape and, consequently, highlights visitors’ collective kinesthesia. Its singleness of shape is the anti-obelisk; it makes you want to drop to your knees in contrition rather than stand in solace.
Today, nearly half a lifetime later, Lin has staged two simultaneous New York exhibits that bring the landscapes to us. At Pace Wildenstein in Chelsea, Lin’s Three Ways of Looking at the Earth (by far the stronger of the two) creates a reversal of the juxtaposition by offering three distinct landscapes that alter their architectural setting. 2 x 4 Landscape is an imagined mountain comprised of over 50,000 vertical two-by-four blocks of Sustainable Forestry Initiative certified wood. Gradually rising from the floor like an ocean swell, the mountain stands 10 feet tall at its peak, yet it casts an almost biomorphic fragility, a softness of form that absorbs not deters. You have to walk its perimeter more than once. It’s really quite something.
In the two adjacent spaces are Water Line and Blue Lake Pass. The former isn’t imagined and yet it is. Constructed out of aluminum tubing and suspended from the ceiling, Water Line recreates the contoured mapping, inversed, of a mountain rising from the ocean floor, visible from the remote Bouvet Island along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Although visible from the earth’s surface, Lin has made some subtle adjustments to the lines for a more naturalistic feel, making Water Line more of a three-dimensional ode than an accurate topographical rendering. Still, you’re walking under a mountain all the same, and in ways that defy all human relations to landscape.
Blue Lake Pass is the most technically complex of the works on hand. Hundreds of particle boards are stacked vertically to create sections of cascading mountain terrain. Imagine a multi-paneled grid falling from the sky, slicing a whole area of the Rocky Mountains into blocks that one can walk amongst like an elementary maze. The topography of Blue Lake Pass is more tactile than its underwater companion, and more interactive than the colossus in the other room. After a few minutes wandering through Pace Wildenstein, the title Three Ways of Looking at the Earth strikes you as somewhat misleading. This is three ways of experiencing landscape: around, under and within. And from a few key vantage points, all three can be taken in at once.
Seventy-two blocks uptown and six avenues east is Lin’s complementary show, Recycled Landscapes, at Salon 94. While not unimpressive, it pales next to its Chelsea counterpart, but maybe that’s the point. Here the utterly polished gallery space has been transformed into an obsessive-compulsive’s playroom; refinement infused with touches of juvenility.
Cruder models of mountainous terrain sit on stacks of cardboard boxes, topographical maps of terraced ravines are cut out of atlases and old phone books, and colorful orbs of varying size rest, almost cautiously, on the gallery floor. Unlike Three Ways, with its naturalistic objects fabricated out of natural materials, Recycled Landscapes disrupts that relationship with fabricated materials, yet thankfully stops shy of politicizing the world’s ongoing struggle with recycling. At Pace Wildenstein we felt invited to lay hands on Blue Lake Pass and 2 x 4 Landscape, to examine their tactile qualities. But with Lin’s floor globes at Salon 94 – made from plastic bottle caps, mini rubber sports balls and miscellaneous children’s playthings – she has created something profound and altogether dissocial: whole objects we cannot touch, made from smaller objects conceived to be handled without care. Recycling can be a real bitch sometimes.
The Pace Wildenstein show could easily stand alone and yield the same effects, which is more than we can say for Recycled Landscapes. But together they conjure a divine little conflict that’s fitting of Lin’s not-so-little career. In Chelsea, each of the three ways has a singleness of shape because the parts come together effortlessly, and seem to expand with the experience as a whole. In the Upper East Side, those parts have either been forced together or scaled down to save space, leaving one with an empty feeling, like a soon-to-be-filled landfill. So in the end, perhaps another visit to the National Mall is needed to get that happy medium.
Three Ways of Looking at the Earth is on view through the 24th of October; Recycled Landscapes is up through November 13.