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Originally published March 30, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified March 30, 2007 at 9:53 AM

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Exhibit review

UW professor's art gives voice to society's "unheard"

The exquisite, subdued ink sketches in the front gallery of Zhi Lin's exhibition "Unheard Voices and Invisible People" don't broadcast the...

Seattle Times art critic

Exhibition review


"Zhi Lin: Unheard Voices and Invisible People," 10:30 a.m.-5 p.m.

Tuesdays-Saturdays, through April 28, Howard House, 604 Second Ave.,

Seattle (206-256-6399 or www.howardhouse.net).

The exquisite, subdued ink sketches in the front gallery of Zhi Lin's exhibition "Unheard Voices and Invisible People" don't broadcast the troubling nature of their subject — or the artist's strength of purpose in exploring it. They are preliminary sketches, a way of doing research, and will later be developed into a new series of Lin's sophisticated large-scale paintings.

A native of China and a University of Washington professor since 2001, Lin recently has been tracking early Chinese immigration to the Western United States. He visited sites where Chinese workers lived during the 1860s as laborers on the Central Pacific railroad. Lin sketched the quiet countryside and, in one case, a still-preserved cabin used by the Chinese workers. The drawings are subtly gorgeous.

If you wear reading glasses, put them on to fully appreciate the nuances of Lin's extraordinary brushwork and to read the inscriptions. You've probably heard the sensational details of death and cannibalism in the pioneer Donner Party, caught in the mountains during a harsh winter. But did you know that, not many years later, uncounted masses of Chinese laborers died while constructing tracks over that same mountain pass? The workers were apparently treated less like human beings than disposable assets.

Exhibition review


"Zhi Lin: Unheard Voices and Invisible People," 10:30 a.m.-5 p.m.Tuesdays-Saturdays, through April 28, Howard House, 604 Second Ave., Seattle (206-256-6399 or www.howardhouse.net).

This isn't a casual exploration for the artist. Studying in England in 1989, Lin watched the Tiananmen Square uprising on television and had an epiphany. "The massacre made me believe that there is a role in society for art, and art can be used to prevent those kinds of events from happening in the future," Lin told me. Since that time, he has devoted himself to paintings that take on important social issues, in a visual language that's easily understood.

To appreciate the full force of his work, step into the back gallery and be prepared for a shock. Lin's painting series "Five Capital Executions in China," previously shown at the Frye Art Museum, is designed to make you feel like an accomplice in murder. Each of the 12-by-7-foot paintings — which represent methods of execution historically used in China — is designed to include the viewer as part of the scene.

Although the pictures loom over us in the gallery, we seem to be looking down into the scenes, where crowds of people observe or ignore the central action: a gruesome public execution. We stand as witness to death by decapitation, flaying, starvation, drawing and quartering, and shooting.

And in each picture at least one person is staring right back at us. The point is obvious: You are part of this, too — and if you find it so repugnant, why aren't you doing something about it?

In complex and beautifully controlled compositions, Lin alludes to classic European paintings and motifs, from the crucifixion and Last Supper to Caravaggio's insolent back-at-you stare. He brings Walt Disney and Pepsi into the mix. Yet Lin presents the paintings in a traditional Chinese scroll format. The Postmodern gumbo of periods and styles has a purpose.

Lin is not singling out China for its history of cruel and unusual punishment, he's looking at human nature and the abuse of power. As he pointed out in a catalog for the Frye exhibition, 106 nations have abolished the death penalty and the U.S. is not among them. Lin says that 80 percent of the world's recorded executions these days take place in China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United States.

And as Lin's ongoing research into the history of Chinese railroad workers in the U.S. is revealing, this part of the world has plenty of skeletons in the closet.

Sheila Farr: sfarr@seattletimes.com

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