Eleen Lin: Mythopoeia
October 14 - November 18, 2023
Reception: October 14, 2023, 4-7PM
Her intoxicating paintings immerse viewers in a dizzying sea of signs, creating the conditions for openness, global understanding and seeing beauty.
Eleen Lin: Mythopoeia
Emerson Dorsch Gallery is delighted to announce Mythopoeia, a solo exhibition by Eleen Lin. The exhibition presents eight paintings selected from her eponymous series, a nearly decade-long project interpreting Herman Melville’s mid-nineteenth-century novel Moby Dick. Born in Taiwan, Lin grew up in Thailand, speaking three languages, Mandarin, Taiwanese and Thai, while studying English at school. She studied painting in London at the Slade School of Art and at Yale University in Connecticut. It is through lenses of numerous cultures, translations, and mistranslations that Lin vividly renders fathomable scenes inspired by Melville’s magnum opus. Because of the book’s profile as a Great American Novel, introducing American culture to English learners abroad, Lin’s representations of the book become a foil for socio-political commentary. With a combination of acrylic wash, especially to represent water, and acutely detailed illustrations of flora, fauna and pattern, Lin’s painting style alludes to and represents a vast range of Asian, North American and European techniques, lore, and motifs. Her intoxicating paintings immerse viewers in a dizzying sea of signs, creating the conditions for openness, global understanding and seeing beauty. Together, they are an opus worth returning to again and again.
At eight by twelve feet, Eleen Lin’s massive painting Phantom of Life anchors the exhibition. A solitary figure navigates an ocean in a dinghy. They are lashed to the boat with their back to the viewer. This is Ishmael, the character who narrates the tale of Moby Dick and who is the lone person at its beginning and end. Clad in a silk floral shirt and blue trousers, the figure’s fabulousness marks them as Lin’s, not Melville’s, Ishmael. They gaze past the boat’s stern toward a distant horizon where smoke snakes up into magenta sun rays. The act of looking back inevitably conjures an immigrant’s paradox.
An immigrant’s survival depends upon a certain commitment to assimilation, attending to learning and taking on the habits of one’s new land. At the same time, immigrants often maintain ties to the land they leave behind, if only in memory, and the contradictions between these vectors can tear at the soul. As the painting’s title suggests, there are ghosts at play, in the figurative and, tragically, literal sense. In one’s wake: the place and people one leaves behind no longer exist. They have moved on, changed or died. At the bow, in front and behind: a phantom flails in the trough of a cresting wave, recalling those who have attempted and failed the ocean crossing in recent and distant pasts.
Lin embraces the ink-like viscosity of acrylic thinned with water and embellishes initial washes, which naturally take the amorphous forms of water, with fine detail work to represent saltwater’s foment. Cascading shapes on the wave’s surface echo the phantoms’ mirage-like shimmer. The drowning man’s outline, along with those of amorphous sea creatures, suggest the borders of Laos as it arches over Thailand. One may not be able to attribute either figure to a specific character in Moby Dick. A disembodied limb surfaces aft. Lurking below them all, a putrid green form has a whale-like shadow just barely discernible beneath the surface. The fey figure stirs the water, and rose-buds float on top, like sprinkles.
Melville’s characterizations relied on a blend of keen observation, fascination, myth, racism and respect that often only conveyed part of the person, not all. These misapprehensions are not unlike the elusive understanding of the whale. Lin’s project aligns these misunderstandings with the immigrant experience and human existence writ large. She re-read the English edition when she was in graduate school in Connecticut, a mere 200 miles from the Pequod’s launch, because she said signs of the tale were everywhere. What was this book? Whale toys, slogans on bars, catch-phrases imbricated in conversation, all of it skated the surface suggesting something deeper. She realized that many Americans who referenced the book had not read it and understood it only through word-of-mouth, a mistranslation of its own. Asking her Asian friends, she realized that they often mistook the book for Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, an entirely different tale of a battle of wills between man and fish.
At times it takes force to knock humans into seeing anew. Lin refuses tricks of exculpating transcendence. Rather, she floods the field, stunning the viewer with a surfeit of references from literature, literary theory, philosophy, Eastern and Western art history, and global current affairs that brook no single allegory. The water’s toil, the trompe l’oeil, the pattern work, Lin’s aesthetics wrap up her program, leaving most of us mortals on a boat at sea.
Limits of knowledge unite us all, it seems, but so does the imperfect dynamic quest to learn more. Ishmael and Lin stand alone as guides.