Maya Lin at PaceWildenstein

Installation of Maya Lin’s Water Line (2006) at PaceWildenstein

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Maya Lin’s sculptures, the subject of an exhibition on display at PaceWildenstein’s West 22nd Street branch, have occasioned tut-tutting from gallery-goers who’d prefer an artist limit herself to, rather than broaden, a signature métier.  In Lin’s case, that would be public sculpture.

It’s understandable, really: The sleek Minimalist elegance of Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. generated initial controversy, eventual plaudits and considerable renown for the Yale architecture student who conceived it when she was all of 21 years old. Lin’s career has subsequently been defined by that solemn, public and political enterprise.

There are worse things to live down; there are easier accomplishments to surmount. Lin has been pegged as the go-to-girl for monuments.

So what, Lin’s admirers wonder, is the current work doing inside? The three sizable pieces at PaceWildenstein are from Systematic Landscapes, a group of sculptures in which high tech methodologies—sonar, say, or computer models—were used to describe, translate and quantify the natural world.

2 X 4 Landscape (2006), a spectacular accumulation of 50,000 pieces of the lumber yard staple, flows, swells and crests like a gently rolling hill.  Blue Lake Pass (2006) posits Donald Judd as topographer, with its regulated array of particleboard boxes with irregular contours based on Rocky Mountain terrain. Lin worked with the assistance of oceanographers to contrive Water Line (2006), a spare transcription of the ocean floor constructed with aluminum wire and hung from the ceiling, seemingly unbothered by gravity.

PaceWildenstein has done Lin no favors in its installation.  Notwithstanding the hangar-like space, the pieces feel cramped and constrained, their evocative capacity diminished by each work’s tight proximity to the other. Water Line, in particular, suffers: Lin’s elegant linear traceries aren’t given leeway to elaborate upon their undulating rhythms.

Perhaps that’s why some gallery-goers consider the pieces models for public works and not fully realized sculptures: Lin’s art is made to feel smaller than it is. Less is decidedly more when dealing with an artist who sets out to embody nature’s boundlessness. PaceWildenstein, in a rush, perhaps, to showcase a prize talent, should’ve settled for one way of looking at the earth.

© 2009 Mario Naves

Originally published in the October 7, 2009 edition of City Arts.

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