- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 22, 2009

Maya Lin’s best work — and her burden — is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the Mall. This name-inscribed stone wedge, designed by Ms. Lin while she was a Yale undergraduate, has forever changed our view of public monuments. From Oklahoma City to the Pentagon, contemporary memorial builders have looked to its minimalism as the ultimate expression of memory and loss.

After Ms. Lin earned instant fame for her black granite wall, she designed only a few more memorials, including a fountain in Montgomery, Ala., commemorating the civil rights movement. In recent years, she has mostly devoted her creative talent to environmental art.

The Corcoran Gallery of Art offers a look at some of her artworks in an exhibition organized by the Henry Art Gallery at the University of Washington in Seattle. This disappointing show reveals how far the 49-year-old architect-turned-artist has retreated from the boldness of her war memorial on the Mall. Now hailed as a masterpiece, the powerfully simple design was initially derided by some veterans as a “black gash of shame,” when it was selected nearly three decades ago.

Maybe Ms. Lin is trying to avoid repeating the painful experience of building such a controversial civic project by making inoffensive art. Her nature-centered sculptures and installations mostly recycle ideas from the land art movement of the 1960s and ‘70s through an architect’s orderly sensibility.

The exhibit title, “Systematic Landscapes,” refers to the methodical way Ms. Lin uses technology to shape her art. For one room-sized work, she worked with scientists at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution to re-create a segment of underwater topography in wire mesh slaloming from ceiling to floor. For another, she used computer modeling to construct a 10-foot-high mound, resembling both a hill and ocean swell, from thousands of wooden posts.

These explorations sound like they might produce exciting results, but the installations are as insipid as the imitations of her Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Ms. Lin’s constructions filter land and sea through computers and maps so as to picture the world’s geography from a remove. In her distilled work, nature is so dispassionately represented that it leaves us wondering if the artist has ever left her Manhattan studio to experience the real thing.

At the exhibit preview, Ms. Lin talked about her commitment to environmentalism and the landscape tradition in art. None of that passion can be felt in her bland models of hills, mountains and seas. She could benefit from studying the Corcoran’s stellar collection of 19th-century paintings by Frederic Church, Albert Bierstadt and others whose wilderness scenes present nature as an unbridled, awe-inspiring force.

Even the more conceptual land art of the last century has more visceral appeal than Ms. Lin’s sculptures. For their indoor installations, artists like Robert Smithson and Richard Long arranged natural elements — stones, driftwood, dirt — as a counterpoint to the artificiality of the gallery setting. Ms. Lin, on the other hand, uses manufactured materials such as particleboard, plywood and steel wire so the contrast isn’t as sharply drawn.

Her sculptures recall architecture as much as nature, a hybrid quality that muddies her earth-hugging message. With its upright timbers, the “2 X 4 Landscape” resembles a town of buildings rising over a hill rather than a purely natural form.

In another gallery, several plaster reliefs seamlessly attached to one partition look like cracks and crevices from an unfinished renovation project.

“Blue Lake Pass,” a piece imitative of mountains, tames the landscape by organizing nature into a grid. It consists of 20 blocks of layered particleboard that are separated by a few feet to allow the viewer to walk between the pieces and look at their peaks and valleys from different vantage points.

The sculpture is meant to recall the Rockies near Ms. Lin’s vacation home in Colorado, but also recalls the canyons of New York where she lives with her husband, art dealer Daniel Wolf, and their two daughters.

The most provocative pieces are made of out-of-date atlases that the artist cuts up to suggest a world of new geographical boundaries. One of these reconfigured maps transports Germany to China while another carves a lake into the Amazon rain forest of Brazil. They seem to be mostly exercises in graphic superimposition, although it’s tempting to interpret them as statements about geopolitical identity.

Ms. Lin’s interest in manipulating natural terrain dates back to her design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and more recent large-scale outdoor environments, some of which are presented in the exhibit through a video. In 1995, she completed the “Wave Field,” a grouping of grassy mounds at the University of Michigan. A similar landscape followed at the federal courthouse in Miami.

In May, her largest wave field will be unveiled on an 11-acre site at the Storm King Art Center in Mountainville, N.Y. The aim of these softly undulating earthworks is to “own the environment,” according to Ms. Lin, so that they disappear into the landscape rather than be set apart from it.

Gone are the sharply dramatic contrasts — the hard wall and grassy earth, the names of the dead and the reflected faces of the living — so powerfully joined at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. That uncompromising design was such a radical departure from commemorative tradition that it sparked a cultural uproar before becoming one of the most visited monuments on the Mall.

Ms. Lin’s creations at the Corcoran only elicit a yawn.

WHAT: “Maya Lin: Systematic Landscapes”

WHERE: Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 17th St. NW

WHEN: Wednesday and Friday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; through July 12

ADMISSION: Adults $10; seniors, military, students $8; children under 6, free

PHONE: 202/639-1700

WEB SITE: www.corcoran.org

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