Concentricities of Color: Linling Lu’s One Hundred Melodies of Solitude at Hemphill

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Art AND: McKinley Wallace III

“Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning; that there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson (from the essay “Circles”)

Amid the disquieting and often tragic uncertainties of the coronavirus pandemic, along with the present climate of social injustice and the questionable state of our political landscape, one does not expect to encounter art that is altruistically and purely visual. It was refreshing, and also enlightening, to view the colorful abstract paintings of Linling Lu in her solo show, One Hundred Melodies of Solitude, at Hemphill Fine Arts in Washington, DC. What seemed at first to be formal abstractions expanded into spiritual, cultural, and personal visions.

This exhibition, which closed in August, offered a plethora of works, including a series of sumptuous, large-format circular paintings that comprised the heart of the show. Also presented were smaller tondos rather arbitrarily grouped on the wall in spacious ovoid configurations, as well as modular, toy-like block sculptures, an addendum to an otherwise focused show. Adding to this work were digital prints that coupled the artist’s concentricities of color with a didactic line-up of constituent colors. So much diverse work in one show, while indicative of Lu’s prolific creative output, risked being a distraction from the premiere works of this exhibition, but offered a subtext for the artist’s thought process.

Lu’s complex, anthropometric tondos, measuring about five to six feet in diameter, were the strongest works in this exhibition, urging a sentient, mesmerized viewer to align bodily with their magnetic, centrifugal power. They are arresting in their complexity, centering in their universal circularity, and they induce mandala-like, bodily meditation. Highly charged with radiating energy, these fields of immaculately painted spectral color bands are arranged variously with diverse widths, intervals, and interstices that accommodate the sphere of the human eye, as philosophized by Emerson in his essay on circularity.


Exhibition view from LINLING LU Solo Exhibition at Hemphill, Washington DC (April 4–August 28, 2020). Artworks from left to right: One Hundred Melodies of Solitude, No.98; Block Sculptures, Untitled No.19, No.21 and No.18; One Hundred Melodies of Solitude, No.176 and No.177. Photographed by Ulf Wallin

More predictable were the compositions employing evenly measured, equally spaced bands of a single hue spread out in tonal progressions, emanating outwardly from the center to the periphery of the painting, and back again. These works are on harmonious autopilot and lack the drama of chromatic shifts and efficacious intervals that invigorate the more colorfully complex paintings.

Even when paired, these monochromatic versions, as genuinely a part of Lu’s enterprise as they are, can lull one into decorative sedation. Collectively, however, all of these encompassing paintings infer the spherical nature of the cosmos—indeed, perhaps of everything—as implied by the concept in Zen painting of Enso. Lu’s highly disciplined art is truly universal, even cosmic, and does not flirt with timeliness, but instead courageously engenders a timeless rendering.

Taking the large paintings into account, the premise of the work appears upon first encounter to relate to the unabashed phenomenological immediacy of color that reminds one of Optical Art of the 1960s and Color Field painting of the ’60s and ’70s. Here the temptation to align Lu’s work with these movements is tantalizing. The mere fact that this work was being shown in DC—an early hotbed of color painting via the so-called Washington Color School—is almost enough to dismiss it as parochial and derivative. Indeed, like the WCS practitioners, Lu’s paintings are formal, direct, and workmanlike. It is work that ostensibly forefronts the direct, sensory, and unmediated experience of pure color that some might dismiss as “eye candy.”

But here it must be said that even the perceptual concoctions of the optical artists or the gorgeous inventions of the color painters were never as pure in their intent as they were universally portrayed. The approach those artists took to painting, not unlike Lu’s, was indeed formal, and any ulterior motives or influences were downplayed by the critical proclivities of the time, and sometimes by the artists themselves, in favor of the unadulterated allure of a delightfully pure visual experience. The backstory of those artists, and what spawned their work, was rarely told.


Exhibition view from LINLING LU Solo Exhibition at Hemphill, Washington DC (April 4–August 28, 2020). Paintings from left to right: Composition of 9 painting group: One Hundred Melodies of Solitude, No.154 through No.162; One Hundred Melodies of Solitude, No.99. Photographed by Ulf Wallin

Innuendos of historical precedents linger in the work of any serious artist. And to be sure, the scent of orderly, optically charged perceptual art, as well as the sumptuousness of color painting wafted through this show. More careful scrutiny of Lu’s work, however, reveals an idiosyncratic artistic agenda and background to her paintings. Born in China, Lu studied landscape architecture in Beijing before transplanting herself in Baltimore to study painting at MICA. Without a doubt, the courageous departure from her homeland notwithstanding, her intellectual and artistic roots in Chinese history and culture run deep. This is hardly the resume of a risk-addicted color painter or a quasi-scientific perception aficionado.

An undeniable clue to the genesis of Lu’s work is the show’s title, One Hundred Melodies of Solitude. This title makes reference to her personal history, including endless hours spent in solitude as an only child, in quiet contemplation of the setting sun. It also reminisces myriad hours spent practicing classical piano, an instrument she eventually mastered. For Lu, sound and color are synesthetically one. She spent part of her youth living with her seamstress grandmother in a remote Chinese province where she was inspired by the curvilinear stripe patterns of traditional Chinese textiles. Later, as a landscape architecture student, she became enthralled with moon gardens—ancient stone structures with darkened, mysterious circular openings. As a student of painting in the US, she learned about the perceptual and color painters along with such visionaries as Agnes Martin and Hilma af Klint. But like many younger, serious and accomplished artists, Lu’s specific influences have become largely amalgamated into a singular personal vision.

The present condition of the world—the entire cosmic orb upon which we dwell—does not seem to demand work of this contemplative nature. Lu’s paintings, with their highly refined, perfectly tuned spirituality seem, on the face of it, optional in a deeply troubled world. Given the social and political vicissitudes of the present day, one may dismiss these works outright as peripheral to the exigencies of the world at large.

Alternately, however, one may take this ambitious art as a reminder of what is possibly missing in a confused and dangerous world—that is, a calming yet exhilarating alternative to the chaos and frustration of our present condition. Perhaps they offer us a vital antidote that provides a place of retreat in order to transcend the worldly chaos and frustration in which we find ourselves. Maybe they lead us to see, as Whitman postulated, “that under every deep a lower deep opens.” One would certainly hope so.


Exhibition view from LINLING LU Solo Exhibition at HEMPHILL Artworks, Washington DC (April 4 - August 28, 2020) Painting from left to right: One Hundred Melodies of Solitude, No.178 Composition of 6 painting group: No.148 through No.153 Photographed by Ulf Wallin

Top Image: One Hundred Melodies of Solitude, No.173, No.99, No.174 and No.147, Photographed by Ulf Wallin

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