Public Places, Private Emotions

Maya Lin's Topologies

When Lin talks about her work, she often talks about what she has observed: a group of schoolchildren who were hushed into silence at the Vietnam memorial, or the circle of the relatives of civil rights martyrs that gathered around the circular stone tablet of her Alabama memorial at the opening ceremony and trailed their fingers in the water coursing over it. Is it the subject matter or Lin's tranquil creations that engender such responses? Certainly the planned memorial for those who died in the Oklahoma Federal Building in 1995, which features one empty chair for each victim, with smaller chairs for the children, seems heavy-handed and literal in comparison to Lin's designs.

Lin is something of a conundrum: a very serious, very intellectual and very private woman who takes great satisfaction from the emotional power of her very public work. Without ever betraying much of herself, she seems to understand how catharsis works and, even better, how to make it work. I say Maya Lin for president.

One of Lin's most playful designs is The Wave Field, a grassy quad outside the aerospace building at the University of Michigan that Lin fashioned into hummocky waves that mimic the ocean surface. A subtle nod to fluid dynamics, as well as to the desert (where the aerospace student to whom the field is dedicated crashed and died), the best thing about The Wave Field is the fact that students hang out there, using the five-foot waves as Barcaloungers. What's most powerful about Lin's work is her ability to create a site-specific design that people respond to and that, unfortunately, is impossible to put in a museum.

Detail from Maya Lin's Untitled (Topographic Landscape).
Detail from Maya Lin's Untitled (Topographic Landscape).

Lin, however, considers herself something between an architect and an artist, and "Topologies," which originated at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, is supposed to show off her artist side. It does a fine job: The pieces are elegant and uncrowded, from an untitled topographic landscape that's essentially a giant model built of particle board, to a huge Avalanche of glittery broken glass piled high in a corner. But while Lin's artist side is every bit as refined as one might expect, and her drawings and prints inspire a high degree of collector's envy, they are not nearly as special as her works in the world.

Lin is the kind of person who will spend all day looking at the curve of the horizon, or staring at the ocean, trying to tell where one wave begins and another ends. Her sculpture bears the same quality of attention. Much like Hamish Fulton and Richard Long, those two British artists who take a lot of walks and write little poems about them, Lin has the sort of simple connection to the earth that the CAM seems to appreciate in contemporary artists. Unlike them, her connection translates more naturally to her viewer through her works, primarily because she uses physical things instead of language to make her point. Her materials — glass, wood, beeswax — also connect her to artists such as Tony Cragg and Meg Webster (both, along with Long, shown in recent years at the CAM), who are into metal, coal, salt and sand.

There's nothing particularly wrong with this kind of work — respectable is the word that comes to mind. Sure, the more hackneyed pieces, such as Lin's beeswax disks that are meant to emulate the moon's waning, seem positively lumpen. But on the other hand, her exquisite furniture designs for Knoll are there for the sitting (and one can, while sitting, view the entertaining episode of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood where he goes with Lin to see the clock she designed for Penn Station. "I've always liked escalators!" he says perkily on the way down). While Lin's personal restraint seems absolutely correct in her outdoor work, in the museum it left me cold. Even the supposedly self-contained pieces, such as the giant pebbles fashioned from blown glass in Rock Field, seemed more like studies for later projects, or the byproducts of finished ones. They are keys to Lin's mysterious ability to generate simple yet alluring sites.

Such keys are important when you're talking about someone as masterful as Lin, whose public projects certainly make you want to know more. If anything, this exhibit is a perfect opportunity to consider the strategies of someone who has managed something few Americans have: public art that works in the highest sense. Foreign countries are often better than we are at appreciating American genius, but surprisingly Maya Lin is a talent that we ourselves have embraced. Still, Lin has gone her own way. Uninterested in becoming our national mourner, she has focused on things that make history seem smaller — water, earth and stone — yet she has continued to make a place for us among them.

"Topologies" will be on view at the Contemporary Arts Museum, 5216 Montrose Boulevard. (713) 284-8250, through September 12.

On Thursday, August 7 at 7 p.m., Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision will be screened at the museum.

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