by Jonathan Goodman
FOU | DECEMBER 2, 2017 – FEBRUARY 10, 2018
Lin Yan, an established sculptor who has been living in New York since 1993, comes from a well-known artist family based in Beijing. After studying for her undergraduate degree at the prestigious Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, she spent time in Paris before making her to way to America, where she received an MFA. Lin is primarily known for using paper to cast architectural details such as moldings and larger structures such as doors. In her casts—an artistic focus for the artist since the early 2000s—Lin Yan makes use of Xuan paper, which is traditionally used for painting and calligraphy. Even when crumpled, or bent to emulate the form it envelops, the paper remains surprisingly strong. In the past three years, the artist has moved toward public art projects to bring about her ghostly, lyric transformations of building details and structures that echo the original forms on which they are based. Gateway, the title of the show, works extensively with the building details of the early 20th century brownstone in which Fou Gallery is located.
Conceptually, the paper casts of doors, radiators, and bricks bring up highly interesting questions about copying the original, as well as encouraging a discussion of the difference between a transformed image and a literal one. Lin Yan's work in this show seems relatively direct in a conceptual manner, but in fact refers to remarkably sophisticated and nuanced insights about what happens when a paper copy of an object made of a different material—wood or iron—asserts characteristics not associated with the original. As a result the paper sculpture maintains an originality of its own, transforming the base structure it reiterates into something other than its beginnings. This can be seen as an implicit critique not only of the early Western practice of the mechanical reproduction of images, but, perhaps, the learning method in Chinese painting, in which the apprentice copies earlier masterpieces again and again in the hopes of internalizing previous painterly values. In fact, what is most interesting to the viewer is the gap between the original and the copy, which in Lin’s work clearly does not aspire to an exact reproduction. Instead, we find something else—namely, a reiteration that is deliberately imperfect, likely in the hope that the changes that occur during the casting will add artistic interest and even poetic insight.
Gateway (2017) is the key piece to the show.Constructed of ink and Xuan paper, the sculpture lyrically duplicates the double-door opening of the second floor of the brownstone—the level on which the gallery is located. In no way a close copy, the white paper is mottled with brown discolorations and a black patch of ink. In the picture taken of the sculpture, the work looks more like a painting than a relief. But whatever form we may assign the piece, it is wonderfully moving as an extant re-creation of the doors, built more than a few decades ago. Attached at an angle to the double doors the paper forms imitate, Gateway demonstrates both an architectural past Lin wants to keep alive, and the sharp insight that our reconstructions may come close to the initial forms they follow but can never match them exactly. Yet that is hardly a cause for melancholy, as the new version, in the innate freedom of its interpretation, results in an image whose lyricism and innovation cannot be denied.
The paper copies are not without comic intent. In Lin’s humorous ink and Xuan paper relief, called Temperature Difference (2017), the radiator's old-fashioned metal folds are re-cast and turned sideways, seeming odd and eccentric where the work hangs flat on the wall, in close proximity to the actual heating appliance. The sculptures sound a note of absurdity in their literal and also figurative impress of the objects they are casts of. This is not only highly interesting visually, it also raises the very interesting question of why such artistic likenesses constitute an art object—we have been debating this issue since the debut of Andy Warhol's Brillo boxes.
But it looks like Lin Yan is after something else—maybe more original—than a commentary on the notion of a carbon copy and its flaws. Coming from a culture five thousand years old, the artist may well be preoccupied—even haunted—by the act of memory in a physical sense. In Carry On (2016), a forty-inch paper column, painted entirely black, hangs from the ceiling. It is set apart from the other works by the darkness of its color, and by the fact that it is hung from above. While this column is rather small, the column in general is meant to support architectural works of considerable import. Without adding too much content to a show that is beguiling largely because of the lightness of its hand and materials, it can be said that Lin Yan's works are posed in the middle between an established past and an as-yet-unknown future, in which only the present truly counts. If this speculation has truth to it, Lin’s efforts start to look like the creation of a middle place, where the history of what has happened is buoyed by what has not yet begun. Her center ground, then, is a philosophical ploy made striking by the beauty of her constructions.
JONATHAN GOODMAN is a teacher and author specializing in Asian art, about which he has been writing for more than twenty years.