National Gallery of Art acquires work by Mel Chin
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National Gallery of Art acquires work by Mel Chin
Mel Chin, Landscape, 1990. Sheetrock cut to topography of 30th parallel, dirt from local landfill, plywood, oil on canvas, tempera and silver on paper, ground azurite, malachite and other pigments on silk, gold. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Gift of the Collectors Committee, 2023.8.1. Photo: Bert Janssen Maastricht.

WASHINGTON, DC.- Mel Chin (b. 1951) is a conceptual artist known for his research-based approach that encourages greater awareness of and dialogue around social and environmental issues. The National Gallery of Art has recently acquired Landscape (1990), the first work by the artist to enter the collection, through a gift of the Collectors Committee. Landscape addresses idealized representations of nature in the past and the reality of nature in the present.

A pivotal work in Chin’s career, Landscape comprises a 14-by-14-foot room featuring three works of art, each referencing specific cultures with strong historical painting and philosophical traditions relating to the landscape.

The first work, on the wall opposite the room’s entrance, is created in the style of a 14th-century Persian miniature. Featuring hills, sky, and a river, the painting references the Zoroastrian belief in the earth as a spiritual entity from which a river flows. The river’s sheen comes from silver leaf, which darkens over time to suggest pollution from the contemporary oil industry.

On the left wall is an oil painting in the style of 19th-century American romantic landscape artist Albert Pinkham Ryder. The work’s gilt frame evokes the affluence of Ryder’s time, while the shallow relief moldings echo the topography of the 30th parallel. The painting depicts trees native to the United States at that latitude, including pines, live oaks, and junipers. The artist applied darkening glazes across the entire composition, like a patina of acid rain.

The work on the right wall is based on a Yuan Dynasty scroll after the style of Zhao Mengfu (1254–1332) that depicts five blue-green mountains, alluding to the five Chinese elements. Chin has replaced the traditional scholar and trees with a subtle tiger-skin pattern on the blank portions of the scroll, a reference to the fading of untamed nature in modern times.

Chin’s meticulously crafted paintings are not exact depictions of their original sources; rather, each one is somehow purposefully inadequate. This is underscored at the bottom of each of the room’s walls, where a condensed contour of the 30th parallel is cut. Landfill, with traces of modern-day refuse, seeps out below, suggesting the unseen consequences of the consumption and historical idealization of nature. This fourth landscape brings viewers out of the historical past and into the present.

One of Chin’s most significant works, Landscape has been included in several of the artist’s major shows from 1990 through 2018. Chin is a MacArthur Fellow and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, among other honors.

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