Sunday, October 26, 2008

Later, After the Band Trip...Maya Lin

Sunday afternoon, midday, the deYoung museum in my backyard. (I know that statement carries some responsibility with it. I'm trying to live up to that responsibility.) I woke up rather late and still made it here to see the Asian Art and Maya Lin exhibits.

First of all, I'm probably going to be politically incorrect here and express my surprise at the Asian art exhibit. When I visited the Asian art museum earlier this year the Ming Dynasty pieces were there, and I couldn't see the subtleties. Everything looked like Asian art that I remember from the Midwest--those vast, wall-sized tapestries with spidery images of trees, pagodas and women in ornate dresses and hairstyles.

But this Asian art...

Some of it was nearly Riveran in execution--bold colors and WPA basis from the 1930's and art deco influences. This art was truly Asian and American, in its influence and colors and design. The colors were bold, many of the lines supremely heavy, and the images downright socialistic. They spoke of a life exploratory, not just Asian. You could still sense Asian influence--the subjects were often Asian and the circumstances Asian (one painting was of the painter's wife crocheting in a chair in the entrance to their tent at the Japanese relocation camps of the 40's), but these people wanted to get through to as many other people as possible. They used any means of artistic appeal possible to achieve the widest audience.


And then there was the Maya Lin exhibit. Maya is a great lover of simple and natural forms, and best known for her monument to the Vietnam War veterans (see inset) in Washington, D.C. I had the opportunity to see that memorial when I was there in high school for a band trip, and it had the same overwhelming effect as when the media or a ceremony lists the names of the dead from Iraq. I wept. I wept for the idea of that many young people wiped out in a series of years that provided no real substantive result other than to change soldiers and society. When I saw the wall of THAT, a simple, black, descending wall that tapers off into the past, and since I was a teenager who didn't know what to do with it, then it rested somewhere to visit me later.

The visits come from Iraq, and, subtly, from the deYoung today.

Lin's exhibit here didn't make me weep today--it was breathtaking, like the Grand Canyon kind of breathtaking. Her ideas are incredibly simple: find a way to bring topography to life. The mapmakers of the Earth's surface are constantly having to redraw their maps as the world is constantly shape-shifting. According to the docent I overheard in a neighboring tour, Lin snatches up the remainder map books at bookstores and drinks in the "landscapes" of the past. She imagines them made from wood, wire, straight pins, plaster, etc. The exhibits breathes a world. In the lobby of the deYoung is a piece called "2 x 4 Landscape" constructed entirely of different lengths of two by fours (see inset picture above). At its highest point the piece is taller than I am, and it's plateau-ed lowest points are as high as my shoe-tops. They have positioned it in front of a deYoung staple--the vast picture of white and black dots that stretches two stories up and the width of a university lecture hall. The two compliment each other like funny and beautiful, like cheese and meat, like gold and pearls. In the exhibit rooms she has pieces made of plywood to look like a tic-tac-toe layout of the ocean floor, plaster etched right on the museum walls like topographical graffiti, a straight pin layout of the San Joaquin River Valley (Joan Didion would smile, yes?), and a room-sized wire cross-piece of the Atlantic Ocean floor. You walk in that room and you are in a negative space aquarium. Since the California Academy of Sciences still has a line on the weekends out to the street this is a refreshing version of the Steinhart portion.

Speaking of the Academy, Lin has a hand in the shape and feel of that building as well. The final part of the Lin exhibit at the deYoung holds a room of photographs and the prototype for her piece at the Academy, found in the Academy Gardens, in how it was built and how it blends to the ecological world there. For the project and much of her other topographical art, Lin shifted her perception from that of linnear to that of nearly being taxidermy, slicing off bits of the land vertically and re-assembling it.

Lin does this natural slant quite a bit in other creations across the country, all with the simplest of approaches. It's a soothing and exciting thing to behold--a cream-colored tapestry with spidery wire of canyons and undwater pagodas.

In striking 3-D.

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