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Sunday, April 16, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Visual Arts

The nature of Maya Lin

Seattle Times art critic

Stand at the rim of the balcony overlooking a small downstairs gallery at the Henry Art Museum and you can peer into a world that's normally invisible.

With a loose mesh of wire, like pencil marks in space, Maya Lin has sketched the topography of an undersea landscape, a rolling valley and steep mountain, whose peak, if the waterline were there, would be the only bit of earth we could see — an island rising above the waves.

The distilled forms of Lin's work are meant to push us beyond our habitual way of looking and thinking. She doesn't create objects so much as experiences. Best known for her Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the acclaimed artist and architect has made a significant mark on American art with designs ranging from massive outdoor earthworks and monuments to tabletop sculptures, delicate drawings to award-winning houses.

But for Lin, visiting Seattle to install an exhibit at the Henry Art Gallery, the essence of her work stays the same, no matter what form it takes.

"I consider myself in a strange way like the landscape painters of the 19th century," Lin said. "I am an artist who is focusing my attention on looking at the natural world."

The title of Lin's exhibition, "Systematic Landscapes," points to the way she processes imagery, through an intellect rooted in science and mathematics. "We now have different tools from the human eye to look at that world. A lot of what I do takes nature and in a way regurgitates it — through computers, through technology, the lens of these tools — then reintroduces it."

The Confluence Project

Coming up

"Maya Lin: Systematic Landscapes" Opening reception 9 p.m.-11 p.m. Friday.

The exhibition continues 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays (extended hours to 8 p.m. Thursdays) through Oct.1 at the Henry Art Gallery, 4100 15th Ave. N.E., Seattle. $10, students and seniors $8, members free (206-543-2280 or www.henryart.org).

The exhibition opens with a reception Friday evening and will focus on three large-scale, site-specific installations. Included in the mix are recent sculptures and reliefs as well as drawings, photographs and video documentation of outdoor projects.

For about five years, Lin has been quietly working on her most extensive outdoor-installation artwork to date — right here in Washington. The Confluence project focuses on the exploratory journey of Lewis and Clark along the Columbia River and will encompass seven installations by Lin, marking the route. Her work is meant to acknowledge the view of Native Americans who first inhabited the land, to help restore critical wildlife habitat, and point out, through excerpts of text, some discoveries the explorers logged along their way, showing how the land and its creatures have since changed.

"We know Lewis and Clark from their journals ... and what we get from them is almost a lens, a very exact description of what a place was like 200 years ago," Lin said. "I was very acutely sensitive not to make a huge art statement. In a way I wanted to disappear and put you right up to nature's edge."

A section of "Systematic Landscapes" at the Henry introduces Lin's concepts and models for Confluence. The entire project is still years from completion, but the first installment will be dedicated Saturday at a ribbon-cutting ceremony at Cape Disappointment State Park, Ilwaco, Pacific County.

"Regurgitating nature"

Coming up

Artist lecture, 7 p.m. Thursday, Kane Hall 130, University of Washington (sold out). Overflow seats for the video simulcast may be available at the door for $5 each.

Ribbon-cutting ceremony and celebration 3 p.m. Saturday at Cape Disappointment State Park, Baker Bay, Ilwaco, Pacific County. Free (360-693-0123 or www.confluenceproject.org).

For Lin, it's natural to use high-tech tools, from satellite views of the Earth to sonar scans of the ocean floor in the conception of her work. "I'm a concerned environmentalist," she maintains. "What we don't see, we pollute. I look at the Confluence Project as one site — the life flow of the Columbia River system."

Yet, as an artist, she knows she is treading a fine line when she talks about "regurgitating" the imagery of nature. What separates that from simple documentation? "By rote, the danger is you become like a science project. I am making art. It's about the translating and how much of the human hand and my eye is involved. "

Part of Lin's "palette" as a landscape artist is scale. She can undermine our expectations by shifting the work and its context from tiny to vast, microcosm to macrocosm. "How we change our relationship to landscape changes drastically when we change the scale of the site in which it is," she says. At the Henry, her massive "2x4 Landscape," an indoor mound composed of 65,000 bits of board on an engineered substrata, is a perfect example.

It rises 10 ˝ feet in the tall South Gallery and is meant to be climbed. (Visitors will have to shed their shoes and sign a release form if they want to make the trek over such steep and uneven terrain.)

An indoor hill

"I wanted to know what it would be like to create a hill indoors to walk up and almost touch the ceiling. Knowing that, I needed a contained room to do it because a hill outdoors versus translating that hill indoors is completely different."

If called upon, Lin can supply plenty of art-history references for her work, touching on minimalism, earth art, our response to spacial concepts. But what it all boils down to, she says, "is pure experiences — and they kind of take you, dislocate you."

At the same time, she tries to retain a sense of intimacy and human touch to the work. That's not always easy for an artist who thinks big.

"I sit there and make the models and build them up, but I never get to be hands-on (with the final work.) They are made with bulldozers; they are made with cranes; they are made with teams," Lin says. "There is also this incredible need for me to go into my studio, without anyone else around, just to make the work. It is something I have done my entire life."

Working alone in the studio is business as usual for most artists. But Lin, 46, holds a unique place in American art history.

Instant stardom

Few living artists can claim the huge popularity Lin has achieved, the almost instant stardom that came with her very first commission, begun while an undergraduate at Yale University.

Her profound design for a Vietnam war memorial in Washington, D.C., done as a class assignment, won the competition and set off the most heated furor over a public artwork this country has ever seen.

Lin was viciously disparaged by some: for her youth, her gender, her Chinese heritage, her lack of credentials. Her design was attacked for its simplicity and abstract form, for the black color of the granite she chose, for the way the monument would alter the landscape. The long ordeal was a trial by fire that Lin weathered with amazing fortitude and grace.

You know the rest. When Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial was completed in 1982, etched with the names of 58,000 Americans who had died in the conflict, the long v-shaped granite wall carved out such a place of power and authority, of such utter rightness — both on its site and in the public psyche — that skepticism about the maker and the monument quietly dissolved.

Lin's memorial is perhaps our most affective national monument, the destination of countless pilgrimages, a place of tears and hope.

Breaking the typecast

For Lin, the fireworks of her early career have been both a blessing and a burden. She ended up with a famous name and a lot of clout, but for a long time struggled to break free from being typecast as a designer of memorials.

She turned down commissions that other artists and architects would have begged to do. Ten years ago, she was just beginning to establish a body of work she felt comfortable with, including the massive earthwork "The Wave Field," at the University of Michigan College of Engineering.

Now she has hit her stride, her résumé boasting projects as diverse as the Confluence project, a new earthwork she has planned for the 500-acre Storm King Art Center in New York, and a house featured in this month's Architectural Record.

A 1999 exhibition at Gagosian Gallery in New York placed Lin's work next to some of the big guns of 20th-century American sculpture: Richard Serra, Mark di Suvero, David Smith and Walter de Maria.

When you look back to Lin's first public artwork, The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and then to the work she is doing at the Henry Gallery, you can see a thread of continuity, a distinctive vocabulary of imagery developed over decades.

Earlier this year, Lin opened up a 1981 Rand McNally atlas and sliced into it, creating a sculptural relief that hearkens back to the initial impulse for her war-memorial design, as she recounts it in her book "Boundaries."

"I had a simple impulse to cut into the Earth," Lin wrote. "I imagined taking a knife and cutting into the Earth, opening it up, an initial violence and pain that in time would heal ... I never looked at the memorial as a wall, an object, but as an edge to the earth, an opened side."

When asked where this ongoing exploration will lead her, Lin laughs. She can easily picture herself ending up like eccentric earth artist Michael Heizer, who lives on a remote ranch in Nevada, doing his most important work in utter isolation.

For Lin, it all comes back to the land, which seems so comfortable and familiar. "We think because we've seen something we know what it is, and once we've seen it, we aren't really paying attention," she says. "So if you can alter someone's perception just slightly, they're going to look back — and they are going to see it."

Sheila Farr: sfarr@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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