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Vietnam Wall Brainchild Builds on Monumental Career

Maya Lin — the world-renowned artist behind the Vietnam Veterans Memorial — reportedly used to wonder if she could ever produce anything to match the acclaim of that iconic work.

Maybe not. But “Systematic Landscapes,” Lin’s heralded new exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, will once again trigger a special resonance, at least with Washingtonians.

Although the show is centered on a trio of mesmerizing, large-scale sculptural installations that have nothing to do with the nation’s capital, the architect-artist employs a couple of smaller works to pay homage to the place that launched her career in 1981. The Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay both get silvery nods in the form of sculpture and installation in this exploration of landscape and geologic phenomena.

“Pin River—Potomac,” created especially for the Corcoran, greets visitors as they approach the gallery from the museum’s grand stairwell. “Pin River” is a topographic representation made from thousands of gleaming, silver straight pins. Some might recognize the shape without looking at the wall text. I didn’t, but either way, the metallic image (executed by Corcoran art students relying on Lin’s drawing) effectively establishes a sense of place.

Strolling past “Pin River,” the viewer encounters the first major installation, “2x4 Landscape.” Depending on your personal perspective, it could be either a massive hill or a wave. Lin doesn’t instruct us. Built from more than 50,000 fir and hemlock boards, cut at various lengths and set on end, the effect is slightly disorienting. You’ll be tempted to climb on it, and initially Lin wanted museum visitors to don museum-provided slippers and do just that. The Corcoran has — at least for now — nixed that idea.

So resist the urge to climb and just walk around the formation, taking in “2x4” from different angles. It’s a model landscape on a grand scale. The composition could be interpreted as a pixilated image of an actual form, much as a deconstructed digital picture would look. The installation demonstrates Lin’s comprehension of architecture’s precision and nature’s chaos.

In a sense, the entire exhibit is like this. Traversing Lin’s constructed landscapes — moving around, under, and through them — we encounter a world that has been mapped, digitized, analyzed, and then reintroduced by Lin as actual, physical structures. The intent, according to press materials, is to “explore how people perceive and experience the landscape in a time of heightened technological influence and environmental awareness.”

Beyond all this though, the “Atlas Landscapes” series is simply fun to look at. Lin creates miniature landscapes in the pages of each worn book of Atlas maps by painstakingly carving into each individual page, creating a three-dimensional topography from the multiple layers.

The second major installation, “Blue Lake Pass,” models an actual mountain range near the artist’s southwest Colorado home — but the range is sliced into a grid. The undulating installation, composed of carved and stacked pieces of particle board, allows visitors to contemplate the inside of a mountain and peer into the peaks, crags and valleys from different perspectives. One viewer who has traveled extensively in the Middle East said the beige installation also resembles desert dunes.

Visitors tended to linger most in this room, talking with one another as they walked between the grids. Smiles came easy, especially for a middle-age tourist who hailed from Colorado and said that the installation felt true to his remembrance of home.

“Bodies of Water” also reveals Lin’s interest in the environment. Reading the wall text, we learn that the three bodies of water she recreates — the Caspian, Black and Red seas — are among the most polluted in the world. Lin uses stacks of carefully cut plywood to accomplish a representation of each. The top piece of plywood duplicates to scale the circumference of each sea, while those stacked underneath gradually diminish in size with each piece balanced on its lowest — or deepest — point.

In the exhibit catalogue, Lin explains that her architecture and art are always informed by a deep respect for the environment. “I cannot remember a time when I was not concerned with environmental issues or when I did not feel humbled by the beauty of the natural world,” she said. “I do not believe anything I can create can compare to the beauty of the natural world, but these works are a response to that beauty.”

“Silver Chesapeake,” a replica of the Chesapeake Bay cast in gleaming silver, is perhaps a bit of wishful thinking in response to reality. The actual Chesapeake — though still breathtakingly beautiful to behold on a sunny summer day — is ailing, its waters polluted and its life forms diminished. This beautiful rendition made me want to help restore the bay’s purity.

Lin will probably always be best known for her memorial to the Americans killed in Vietnam. But in the 28 years since, she’s gone on to international acclaim, creating dazzling buildings, homes and, of course, art. The 49-year-old creator can now proudly add “Systematic Landscapes” to the catalogue of a monumental career.

“Maya Lin: Systematic Landscapes” runs through July 12 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 17th St., NW. For more information, please call (202) 639-1700 or visit www.corcoran.org.

About the Author

Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on July 8, 2014