maya lin at the de young museum in san francisco

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“systematic landscapes” is a show of sculpture and installation by the american architect who in 1981, while a 21-year-old undergraduate at yale, won the competition to design the vietnam vetrans’ memorial in washington d.c.   her design for the memorial was truly inspired and her ability (particularly at her age) to fight the controversial proposal through to completion (un-ruined) is amazing.

the major works in this show are each 3-d interpretations of digital renderings of landscape.         the first piece, “2×4 landscape” is comprised of about 30 tons of  2×4’s (50,000 of them), cut at different lengths and standing on their ends.     it’s a physically impressive and amusing/attractive in its pixelated fuzziness.    but it suffers considerably from its installation in the large ground-story space of the de young.    first mistake, it’s pushed up against the west wall of the room in a way that makes it impossible to circumnavigate – unacceptable for a sculpture designed to be viewed from every angle.    much more horribly, it’s right up against the monumental richter piece that’s permanently installed in the space.   both works are optical and the two pieces seen together vibrate in the most sickening way.    worse than looking awful together, if you don’t come into the show knowing otherwise, you might think the works by two different artists are one piece.   i’m not exaggerating.   i saw the show with a very experienced, high-level curator from a major international museum, who believed the two things somehow were supposed to be one artwork.       it’s an unforgivable installation error.     if the richter couldn’t have been removed for this exhibition, they needed to find a different space for the lin.

and while i liked “2×4” – it’s fun – i couldn’t help comparing it to gay outlaw’s “black hose mountain” that’s been exhibited at sfmoma, the sculpture center in new york and the berkeley art museum (where it is part of the permanent collection) and thinking it less successful visually, materially and conceptually.

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the second interesting piece, “blue lake pass,” is made of sheets of mdf, each cut (i assume) separately, then layered.   the blocks, arranged in a grid, make claustaphobia-inducing passages through which the viewer may enter the piece.    it’s op-y and sensuous.

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a group of pieces representing the underwater topographies of inland seas was also successful.     they’re quiet and elegant and very interestingly displayed – extending beyond the edge of relatively small pedestals.   they make a lovely reference to the tradition of chinese scholars’ stones.   i could see living with one of these…

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“water line” is a 3-d line drawing of a topographical feature from the north atlantic ridge — rendered with aluminum tubing.   it’s really interesting to experience the way simple lines in space can so effectively define a solid form.   my  5-year-old walked into the space and exclaimed “we’re in a volcano in the place where the lava is!”   again, i found myself thinking about another artist who had explored the same idea – the way a line can create volume.    fred sandback’s brilliant sculptures using a few strands of colored string to make space feel solid are shocking in their effectiveness and their simplicity.   lin’s work does the same thing less effectively with infinely more effort.

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there are also topographic works set into the sheet rock of the gallery and a wall drawing made with pushpins.   none of that work is interesting enough to warrant my time typing.

but the show is worth seeing.    not ground-breaking in the way that the vetrans’ memorial was, but focused and thoughtful.

the first image, of “2×4 landscape,” i lifted from the de young’s website.    the rest, i took (before i realized i wasn’t supposed to) with my iphone.

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