Linling Lu’s paintings are like music to your eyes


In January 2015, pianist Timo Andres performed Philip Glass’s “Etude No. 16” at the Phillips Collection. That 2012 piano piece echoes there still, but not literally. Instead, it resonates in “Soundwaves,” a show of color-field paintings by Linling Lu.

“Soundwaves” is the 33rd installment in the Phillips’s “Intersections” series, originally designed to showcase contemporary artists’ responses to selected works from the museum’s collection: paintings, drawings and sculptures. Most participants followed that premise, but a few have extrapolated it to other aspects of the Phillips, including the museum’s architecture and, now, its chamber concerts.

Lu’s work is lushly visual, but she sees it also in musical terms. Trained as a classical pianist as a child in her native China, Lu later switched to painting. In 2006, she moved to Baltimore, her current home, to study at the Maryland Institute College of Art.

“I hope to keep the channels open between painting and music,” Lu said at the exhibition opening.

Often shown in Washington, Lu’s paintings are made on circular canvases (tondos, in Renaissance art terms) in which hard-edge, concentric rings of color appear to revolve around a single-hued central core, usually small. Flawlessly hand-painted without the use of tape to define edges, the pictures are eye-poppingly vivid and surprisingly diverse in format.

Many of Lu’s circular paintings feature bands of identical width and a vibrant mix of warm and cool colors. But she sometimes varies this composition with circles of differing widths or in a limited range of colors. Occasionally, she spins the rings around large cores that dominate the composition. The outer ring is usually in a light hue, so the picture’s edge seems to be transitioning to the white of the wall around it — and thus, figuratively speaking, into infinity.

The 12 paintings in this show are all from the series “One Hundred Melodies of Solitude,” an allusion to Gabriel García Márquez’s novel “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” but also to Lu’s life. At the “Soundwaves” opening, the artist recalled that she often felt lonely as an only child and later experienced isolation as a new resident of the United States with limited proficiency in English. The artist has made more than 250 pictures in this sequence, all identified, consecutively, by series name and a number.

For “Soundwaves,” Lu juxtaposed seven existing paintings with five made for the show. She identifies the first set as notes played by the left hand — in Glass’s trademark style, those would probably be arpeggios — and the second as the ones played by the right. Four of the new paintings are arranged in a partial orbit around the largest of them, and these include the canvas with the least variety in hue: It’s all in soft shades of green.

The two most striking paintings are, within the confines of Lu’s standard schema, quite different. “No. 219” is primarily blue, but at its center are seven black circles that alternate with rings of golden yellow that vary slightly in shade. “Black is stillness for me,” Lu said at the opening, but the bull’s eye effect makes this the most kinetic picture on display.

One of the two largest pieces, “No. 238” has a center so vast and vivid that it almost engulfs the viewer. The deep purple expanse is bounded by narrow rings that shift, in a natural progression, to orange and pale yellow. As usual, the edge barely holds, but in this painting the center has massive gravitational pull.

As a colorist devising a show for a museum known for color-oriented art, Lu could have easily found visual works in the collection to riff on. Indeed, several Phillips paintings that feature bright hues and circular motifs have been hung in the hallway just outside “Soundwaves.” But the precision of Lu’s style does evoke the classical-rooted mode of Glass’s later works, especially those written for piano. (Less solemnly, Lu also noted that Glass grew up in Baltimore, her adopted city.)

To call the rings in Lu’s paintings “sound waves” may be too literal, just as it could be simplistic to label each color a “note.” Yet it’s clear that Lu does think in musical terms, as when she calls the adjustments she makes while transforming a sketch into a painting a form of “tuning.” Think of “Soundwaves” as a tribute from one composer to another.

Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. NW. 202-387-2151.

Prices: $16; $12 for seniors; $10 for students, teachers and military personnel; free for 18 and under. Timed advance tickets required, except for members.

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