Lin Yan at China Square Gallery
Lin Yan is the third generation of Chinese female artists in her family to go abroad to study—she is a graduate of the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania, and L’Ecole national superieur des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Unlike her mother and grandmother, however, who went back to Beijing, Lin has stayed on in America, her country of choice, although recently she has been returning to China to work for a few months at a time, in response to the prohibitive cost of renting a studio space in New York. In this solo show at China Square, the artist has been inspired by a quote from President-elect Barack Obama: “And above all, I will ask you to join in the work of remaking this nation the only way it’s been done in America for 221 years—block by block, brick by brick, calloused hand by calloused hand.” Her exhibition’s title, “Remaking” takes a word directly from Obama himself but, at the same time, slyly refers to the reconstruction of images and surfaces with traditional materials: Chinese paper, ink, wax, and wood. Out of these materials, she makes moving, contemporary art that looks hopefully at America’s changing political landscape.
As Lin points out in her website’s artist statement, “My works appear to be paintings, but they are not painted; they are sculpted, created of the mold and then cast.” In This Nation(2008)—again the title originates with Obama’s speech, Lin has cast an American flag, whose stripes are composed of cast bricks, mostly but not entirely white (some are black). The upper left-hand portion, where the fifty stars are located on a traditional flag, consists entirely of paper; here is a wonderful example of Lin’s referential artistry, which is literally made of images belonging to the president, but which also suggest one of the icons of American modernist art: Jasper Johns’s Three Flags (1956). Lin has managed, through wit and a visionary interpretation of speech, to create a low-relief sculpture that refers simultaneously to American political and artistic history. Its large dimensions, 36 by 60 by 8 inches, give the work its monumental presence. At the same time, her audience may wonder whether the architectural details—the bricks that have been molded and cast—acknowledges a third source for the imagery, in this case the constant tearing down and building up of buildings in Lin’s hometown of Beijing, where old and new bricks are ubiquitous.
Much of the show explores the visual experiences that monuments and memorials are capable of producing; there is a deep-seated mystical sense of form in her “Monument” series, a sequence of works that include molded bricks framed by Chinese paper and colored by Chinese ink. Monuments #6 and #8 (both works are from 2008) are extraordinarily tactile reliefs, with the softness of the Chinese paper contrasting sharply with the raised, seemingly hard surface of the bricks; but then, suddenly, we remember that the entire piece is made of Chinese paper, and we recognize we have been tricked slightly by Lin’s excellent craft. In this process of remaking, Lin says, “shapes are derived from real objects rendered abstract.” In another work, titled Under Cloud Cover (2008), it looks like Lin is referring to clouds hanging over a wall—rivets seem to join different sections of the work together. Black ink colors one row of the studs, while the large size (82 by 47 by 8 inches) simulates the weight and authority of a large door or portion of a wall. Lin is a very strong artist, someone who constructs lyric displays taken from nearly nothing in regard to materials. As she says, “There is great fulfillment in emptiness and nothingness.”