Eco-Formalism: Maya Lin at the Parrish Art Museum
Platform: Maya Lin at The Parrish Art Museum
July 4 to October 13, 2014
279 Montauk Highway
Water Mill, NY, 631 283 2118
I visited “Platform: Maya Lin” at the Parrish Art Museum after spending a couple of days in my hometown of Frenchtown, New Jersey (located on the Delaware River, population roughly 1,200). I was perhaps more receptive to the urgency of Lin’s environmentalist sculptural works than I normally would have been had I arrived by way of New York City. As a kid, one of my favorite places to explore was a rocky peninsula on the Delaware that my father and I dubbed Clam Beach because its shore was littered with sun-scorched freshwater clamshells. One could always count on finding live clams in the small pools that formed along the riverbank. Today, the little peninsula on the river is unrecognizable. Half of it is underwater and the other half is overgrown by a thicket of unruly vegetation and piles of driftwood.
The work presented in “Platform” consisted of three sculptures for which scientific imaging software was used in shaping familiar sculptural materials like marble, steel and silver. The strength of Lin’s approach has always been her ability to reduce seemingly incomprehensible phenomena to a direct, often quiet, physical encounter. A gesture as simple as folding paper is made monumental in her Wavefields (a series begun in 1995, comprised of three undulating mini-mountain ranges in Ann Arbor, Miami and at Storm King Sculpture Park in New York). The wavefields were based on wave patterns that Lin recreated as site-specific earthworks using 3D modeling software. At her best, Lin subverts the frank materiality of Minimalism by tethering her work to science and politics. These recent works allude to geo-spatial boundaries that, since Modernity, have on the one hand been strengthened and fortified through war, politics and Capitalism, and on the other, have deteriorated as a result of excessive consumption and expenditure of natural resources.
Pin River — Sandy, (2013) was the most effective work in Lin’s exhibition. In Pin River, the diffuse boundaries of the floodplain along the coastline of New Jersey, Long Island and New York City are rendered in thousands of steel pins, forming a slightly blurred wall drawing of the section of the Northeast where Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012. The regularity of the construction almost absurdly orders and regularizes the chaos of the eponymous “super storm.” With this work, Lin points straight ahead at the map and tells us, “This is where the storm hit, these are the floodplains,” and the echo that follows is, “It will happen again.”
Latitudinal coordinates take the form of marble rings in the tripartite floor sculpture titled Around the World (2013-14), Each nested ring represents the topography of the ocean floor in the three works, titled Arctic Circle (the innermost ring) Latitude New York City (the central ring) and Equator (the outermost ring), The marble structures show the hills and canyons found miles below sea level: they make visible the unpredictable beauty of the Earth’s unexplored topos. But how does the gray-veined Vermont marble used in Around the World relate to the latitudes of New York City, the Arctic Circle or the Equator for that matter?
A similar dissonance between form, concept and material is felt in Lin’s wall-hung renditions of three East End lakelets titled Mecox Bay, Accabonec Harbor and Georgica Pond (all 2014) These small, fragile bodies of water were mapped and their lacy perimeters were used as the outline shape of the sculptures, though I’m not convinced that these works live up to their aspiration as talismans for environmental awareness. Silver is precious, yes. These lakes are precious, of course. But how does this precious metal connect to the ecology or topology of eastern Long Island? The works’ diminutive scale makes them look more like gilt ginger roots than fragile bodies of water. Lin wants poetry, but in this work her slick materials threaten to eclipse the conceptual urgency of her subject. In her monuments and earthworks, Lin acts almost like a choreographer who guides bodies through space. The import of her work is absorbed not simply through the visual but likewise through corporeal engagement and movement. And although one can circumambulate Around the World, Lin’s small sculptural works neglect the elements of encounter and surprise at which she is so adept.
I sat in the atrium with Lin’s work on the last day of Fourth of July weekend and watched a cavalcade of cars inch along Montauk Highway through the museum’s picture window. I would like to think that the three concentric rings that comprise Around the World might act like sonar beams radiating outward from their point of origin (Lin) — out into the world of environmentally-minded art-admirers and weekenders alike. In the waning daylight, the pins in Pin River — Sandy cast a westerly shadow that suggested the wiping away of the coastal regions of the floodplain. With this gesture, Lin subtly advances her environmental warning, one straight pin at a time.