MICHAEL LIN, Untitled, 2010, Acrylic on canvas, 70 × 70 cm. Courtesy Eslite Gallery, Taipei. 

Michael Lin

Eslite Gallery
Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

It is surprising how seldom the work of Michael Lin has been compared to that of the Pop artists of the 1960s. Yet one can surmise why Lin, who was born in Tokyo, raised in Taiwan and educated in the United States, and whose career took off in the late 1990s, has avoided the label. Who would want to be lumped in with hordes of pop-culture obsessed, 25-year-old Chinese art-school grads, or thought to be aping a style half a century old?

Still, it is impossible to look at Lin’s oversized paintings of floral patterns—they have covered enormous expanses of floor space, museum exteriors and skateboard ramps, as well as plenty of saleable canvases—without seeing the bloodlines of Pop art. One of Lin’s first successful works borrowed a red and pink peony pattern from a 1960s Taiwanese textile, which was enlarged to architectural scale and used to cover the atrium floor of the Taipei Fine Arts Museum for the 2000 Taipei Biennial. Like Warhol’s celebrity photographs, this was a form of popular imagery appropriated and reworked with a sense of cool, graphic beauty. Like Claes Oldenburg’s sculptures, it was a common object transformed through the simple magnification of scale. Lin has also created large, shaped canvases modeled on the graphics of Taiwanese beer and cigarette labels, and on his own passport. James Rosenquist once said he sought out images for his own paintings that were otherwise “common enough to pass without notice.” Michael Lin could easily say the same.

When Lin turned his focus to common beauty, he did so because, within the everyday, he found his own Taiwanese cultural identity. Unlike 1960s Pop art, Lin’s work is not a reaction to media culture, and he has never wanted to be ironic or detached. His early appropriations were mostly Taiwanese fabrics from the 1960s, and he chose them because they were a part of a cultural language that was disappearing. Instead of decontextualizing these patterns, as the Pop artists would have done, he recontextualized them, draping them over architecture. Even if it was not obvious that the patterns were Taiwanese, it was hard to miss the cultural nuance. The patterns were so huge and beautiful that viewers were more or less forced to engage with them. Lin has since moved on to explore fabric patterns from other parts of the world. In Morocco, it is said that every carpet has a story. Lin, in his use of patterns, has become a curator of such graphically embedded histories.

One could call Lin’s art Postcolonial Pop—a mix of identity issues, appropriated imagery and a slick, commercial graphic sensibility. Lin is certainly not alone in practicing this formula, though his is a much subtler example than, for instance, the Political Pop of Chinese artist Wang Guangyi, who famously combined the Coca-Cola logo and Maoist propaganda.

Lin’s recent exhibition, “Painting,” at the Eslite Gallery in Taipei, felt uncharacteristically bombastic, like an Andy Warhol retrospective at Gagosian Gallery. A series of silver floral patterns on a white ground—all Untitled (2012)—was unquestionably gorgeous. But if being gorgeous is a triumph in fashion, it can be a crime in art. Lin’s style is indeed more polished than ever, but the warmth, subtlety and openness of his earlier works seem diminished. Unlimited (2011), a room painted entirely with a pattern of red and yellow flowers on a pink ground, recalled both Warhol’s flower prints from the 1960s and, in their banal cheeriness, Takashi Murakami’s smiling flowers of recent years. There was also a series of cartoonish paintings of everyday objects—an alarm clock, a gun, a vacuum cleaner—that included the Chinese characters and Roman spellings for each item, which resembled flashcards. Atypically for Lin, it was a trite idea.

Lin is at still his best when working with architecture; when the pattern of a pillow or a bedspread expands to become a whole environment, the effect is transformational and often mesmerizing. But when he is painting canvases to hang in a gallery, the art too often reverts to the function of its subject matter. When this happens, he is in danger of being merely decorative.