Michael Lin & Richard Lin

Mark Rappolt on the subtleties of inter-generational artistic dialogue

By Mark Rappolt

Michael Lin, Untitled (zhixing), 2016, acrylic and gold leaf on canvas, 150 × 112 cm. Photo: JJY. Courtesy the artist Richard Lin, Shaping, 2011, iron on powder coating, 274 × 244 × 184 cm. Courtesy BANK / MAB Society, Shanghai

On 1 August 1970 Arts Review (as it was then called) published a review of Richard Lin’s latest exhibition at the Marlborough New London Gallery written by one of its leading (if conservative) critics, Peter Fuller. ‘Richard Lin’s pictures do not offer the observer much visual information,’ Fuller began, before launching into a doomed attempt at giving the work some sort of context. ‘His work is particularly difficult to orientate historically. He seems to have roots in [Charles] Biederman-type constructivism (but without any similar obsession with colour), the specifically English tradition of abstract relief which revolves around [Ben] Nicholson and [Victor] Pasmore, Bauhaus design, at its “less is more” epitome, [Piet] Mondrian’s later aesthetic theories, and of course, there is a tangential relationship with some of the discoveries of Minimalism – though it would be foolish to accentuate excessively this particular resemblance.’ Bravely, he continued: ‘It is tempting to add to this already-confusing list the influence of an early education in Japan, and subsequently China, which undoubtedly effected his strict, stylistic self-discipline and his evident obsession with technical perfection.’ Before ultimately concluding that Lin’s work was cerebral without being excessively so (ie elitist) and almost so subtle in appearance that many viewers might pass it by, dismissing the work as ‘elegant design or ‘unobtrusive décor’ and totally missing what was going on. What was going on, then? According to Fuller, Lin’s work functioned like jazz rhythms. It’s not at all clear – other than pointing to the fact that Lin’s apparently simple work was in fact a complex form grown of multicultural roots – what Fuller meant.

Lin was born in Taiwan in 1933. He moved to England in 1949, completed his secondary education in Somerset and studied architecture in London during the 1950s. By the end of that decade various London galleries were exhibiting his art, and in subsequent years his work was included in numerous exhibitions of British art, at Documenta III in Kassel (1964) and at successive editions of the Carnegie International (in 1964 and 1967). More international shows followed but a fixed place in contemporary art discourse did not, particularly after he split with Marlborough Gallery during the 1970s. From 1985 to 2009 his work appeared in only a handful of shows. In 2002, after more than half a century living primarily in the UK, he moved permanently back to Taichung in his native Taiwan. He died in 2011, leaving a sense that, as nobody could conveniently categorise his work or clearly explain where it came from, his reputation and consequently his market had never quite taken off.

That last has changed – in September 2018, PAINTING RELIEF 12.12.63 (1963) raised HK$9,120,000 at Sotheby’s Hong Kong – but the question endures about which context Lin’s work should be placed. A news report on Lin’s increasing popularity in the art market, published last June in TheDaily Telegraph, was headlined ‘Asian buyers compete for Millfield-educated artist’ (a reference to the private school that Lin attended in Somerset). Depending on which catalogue or review you read, Lin is described as Taiwan-born, Taiwanese, Chinese or British. Contemporary reviews of or statements about his work range from the lame and the lazy – stating that he was shown ‘alongside Francis Bacon at the Carnegie International’ – to Fulleresque conglomerations of Chinese philosophy (Zhuangzi, Laozi), Chinese ink-painting, Japanese Mono-ha and American Minimalism (Donald Judd and Robert Morris). The more adventurous texts may also point to the relevance of then-contemporary architectural discourse to Lin’s work (although aesthetically disconnected, one might look to the conglomerative tendencies of Alison and Peter Smithson’s Patio and Pavilion display of 1956 and other postwar ideas about building a new world, in the context of constructive techniques such as seriality, repetition, interruption, disruption and the interplay of light and shade). But naturally the newfound interest in Lin also comes at a time when the linear narratives of art-historical movements (and Minimalism in particular – see reviews) are being internationalised and complexified to unpick universals that transcend cultural specificities.

Michael Lin is a contemporary artist based in Taiwan and Brussels. His work, generally, bears no evident visual similarity to that of his namesake. Born in Tokyo in 1964, raised in Taiwan, educated in the US and until 2016 a longtime resident of Shanghai, he is best known for a series of works that expand and interrogate the nature of the ‘readymade’ and the social and economic histories concealed within the fabric of everyday life. Since the 1990s, he has exhibited series of works incorporating busily colourful floral patterns, drawn from those that would (until recently) typically have adorned soft furnishings in Taiwanese homes, often enlarged and applied to architectural surfaces (most recently Enjoy, 2017, on the courtyard of the Chiostro del Bramante in Rome, and, in the same year, Federation for the entry lobby of the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne), with the aim of using a common language of everyday domesticity to question notions of public and private space (particularly within a gallery or museum context and embedded expectations of high-cultural audiences). And to explore the vernacular language(s) of a globalised artworld that is no longer defined by what were once distinguished as centres (New York, Paris, London) versus peripheries (everywhere else). Similarly, A Tale of Today, his 2016 exhibition at Leo Xu Projects Shanghai, explored the iconography and aspirational value of Shanghai’s iconic Forever bicycle brand (produced by one of the so-called Famous Four manufacturers of Maoist China) in the context of a contemporary reality in which international air travel now constitutes ‘the dream’. Reconditioned Forever bicycles were on sale in the exhibition; gold and pink paintings of the Forever logos and Shanghai branding hung on the walls: object and ideal were separated and made whole, before being obliterated in a final room featuring a list of flights and departure times from Shanghai’s Pudong airport. While an exhibition like this might seem nostalgic (and Lin certainly exploits a sense of aesthetic nostalgia in his work), it more properly casts identity as an unstable construct: in the age of (relatively) mass air-travel, an everyday mass-produced bicycle, once an essential means of transport, is a ‘craft’ object (Time Out Shanghai alerts hipsters as to where to purchase classic models). Forever doesn’t mean what it did yesterday.

Although their work is born out of different times and different contexts, and explores distinctly different concerns and sensibilities (albeit Fuller’s concern that people might dismiss Richard’s work as decoration is a risk Michael consciously plays with), it’s in the way they embody unstable connections between tradition and contemporaneity, regional and global vernaculars, and identity as a whole that Lin and Lin connect. That and the fact that the two are joined by blood: Richard is Michael’s father’s second cousin. Michael returned to Taiwan after college in 1993, and recalls that Richard acted as a “kind of mentor” when he was working (initially in the bar) at the IT Park space in Taipei during the early 1990s (it would be the site of his first solo exhibition in 1994) and later travelled abroad to see the younger artist’s shows, but concedes that “if you only look at the work from the 1970s against mine then it looks like the other end of the spectrum”. At BANK’s stand at Art Basel Hong Kong, the two Lins will exhibit side by side. Richard’s work following his return to Taiwan will be on display in Hong Kong, as Michael explains: “the sculptural works from the late period look like IKEA cabinets: minimalist assemblages arranged and stacked. He really stepped out of his zone and pushed his work to somewhere else. He had gone back to Taiwan and said he wouldn’t do any more painting and made a lot of models [for largescale sculptures] because he couldn’t realise his work on the scale he wanted. He didn’t have the means so he went to readymades. I was fascinated by that.” For Michael this copresentation is part of a bigger process of exploration following his latest return to Taiwan in 2016. He recalls that while teaching at Tainan National University of the Arts he noticed that the students struggled to situate their work in the context of Taiwanese contemporary art, and that while he looked back through two decades of work in the process of thinking about largescale institutional exhibitions in his homeland he, too, had become more interested in cross-generational dialogue, art history and points of intersection. Art Basel Hong Kong is just the start.

From the Spring 2019 issue of ArtReview Asia