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Art review: Zhi Lin at Koplin Del Rio

November 27, 2009 | 12:41 pm

400.GoldenSpikeSite Thirty-five drawings from 2007 by Seattle-based artist Zhi Lin fuse long traditions of Chinese and American landscape art. Given their subject — construction of the transcontinental railroad, in which Chinese labor was both essential to success and horribly abused — the combination is at once revealing and poignant.

At Koplin Del Rio, most of Lin’s landscape drawings are made on sketch-pad-size paper using pencil and thinned Chinese ink. Their modest scale and simple materials yield a sense of the artist sketching on- site, as if taking pictorial rather than written notes of what he sees — a method employed by countless 19th century artists from the American East traveling through the Western frontier. Lin could have used a camera (period photographs of the Chinese laborers at work are not scarce), but drawings connect eye to mind to hand in a powerful and thoughtful way.

Born in Nanjing, China, Lin is approaching these sites from a different direction than 19th century painters  such as Thomas Moran or Albert Bierstadt — and with a different purpose. Instead of surveying Northern California and wilderness Wyoming to cobble together heroic images of Manifest Destiny back in the studio, he is memorializing the High Sierra landscapes where Chinese workers blasted tunnels and laid wooden ties. (To skeptics of the laborers’ capacities, Central Pacific’s Charles Crocker reportedly said, “[They] made the Great Wall, didn’t they?”)

The drawings are as skillful and workmanlike as the laborers were, and they bring a slow, ground-level feel of thoughtful concentration to the subject.

The brutal realities of the Chinese workers’ lives have been largely forgotten today, so the absence of people from these drawings is quietly haunting. Lin shows the site where an old Chinese altar was removed in the wake of racial animus after the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, a removal telling for its nonspecific hostility toward Asians, and where white miners in Rock Spring, Wyo., killed nearly 30 Chinese miners in a notorious wage dispute.

Not all is bleak, however, as Lin also records domestic environments and landscapes almost generic in their ordinariness. Metaphor emerges in two lovely studies of densely tangled tree-roots by the side of the road. Finally, two monumental drawings appropriately focus on celebrated places — the tunnels blasted through the treacherous notch at Donner Pass and the run-up to Promontory Summit, Utah, where the golden spike joined the Atlantic and the Pacific. Like them, Lin’s hushed and focused ink drawings manage to join East and West in a wholly different way.

– Christopher Knight

Koplin del Rio, 6031 Washington Blvd., Culver City, (310) 836-9055, through Dec. 19. Closed Sun. and Mon. www.koplindelrio.com

Image: "Railway tunnels on Donner Summit - a rectification to Albert Bierstadt's View of Donner Lake, California (1871-72)." Photo credit: Courtesy of Koplin Del Rio Gallery.

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