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Artist Maya Lin's 'Systematic Landscapes' at the Corcoran Have Monumental Scope

Climb the marble stairs to the upper galleries at the Corcoran, and feel the quality of the light change from the brittle emission of bulbs to the limpid liquid breath of the sun.

When Lin got up here for the first time, she noticed the skylight ceilings were covered in black plastic. It's a standard precaution against natural light damaging the artwork.

But Lin knew that most of her art would thrive in natural light. "We took her up to the roof and she was running across," pulling the black plastic covers from several of the skylights, says Corcoran chief curator Philip Brookman. "She had half of it off before we could keep up with her."

The sun shines upon an exhibit that asks viewers to think about the land and water in new ways. "Pin River -- Potomac" is a map of the river, a dozen feet long, made of hundreds of pins pushed into a white wall.

"Silver Chesapeake" is a three-foot rendering of the bay cast in silver reclaimed from the waste of photographic etching processes. It resembles a shimmering tree root. And there are the "sketches" -- actually three-dimensional wire landscapes -- that Lin was positioning so carefully on the wall earlier this week.

But the three stars of the show, like most of Lin's work, would never fit on any wall. Each piece has a room of its own, fragrant with the bouquet of cut wood.

A work called "2x4 Landscape" is a rolling hill or swelling wave, about 10 feet high, constructed out of more than 50,000 fir and hemlock boards -- sustainably harvested, of course -- cut to different sizes and bolted upright. It begs to be climbed on. When Lin's daughters, ages 9 and 11, saw it last week, they scrambled to the top. Lin is urging the Corcoran to allow visitors to climb with special booties on designated days. Corcoran officials are still discussing how to accommodate the artist's wish.

The piece began in Lin's New York studio as a desktop model of 4,000 sticks "that she would be minutely modeling with her hand," says Richard Andrews, former director of the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle, where the traveling "Systematic Landscapes" first opened in 2006.

In another room is "Blue Lake Pass," based on a mountain landscape that Lin hikes near her Colorado summer home. She has modeled the terrain in sheets of formaldehyde-free particle board, then pulled it apart into a grid, allowing visitors, in effect, to walk through the scene.

In a third room is "Water Line," a kind of drawing in space using aluminum tubes to map the contours of an underwater ridge that rises to Bouvet Island in the southern Atlantic Ocean. The piece seems to float in the air, and the viewer's perspective is from beneath the ocean floor.

"When this show came out, I knew that I was coming to be whole," says Lin, a petite woman with a deep voice, as she walks among the new works.

What she means is, with "Systematic Landscapes," Lin could clearly see -- and she hopes others will see -- that three distinct strands of her work are beginning to make sense together.

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