East City Art Reviews—Linling Lu Soundwaves at the Phillips

By Caroline MacKinnon on April 11, 2023
Artist Linling Lu works in her studio in Baltimore, MD, surrounded by several of her colorful paintings of concentric circles. Lu, seated in front of a very large pink canvas, is wearing headphones. There are many bottles of colorful paint in the foreground.
Artist Linling Lu works in her Baltimore, MD, studio surrounded by paintings from her series One Hundred Melodies of Solitude. Twelve of the paintings from this series are currently on view in Soundwaves. Photo by Xiaoming Liu, PhD

Last year, Baltimore-based artist Linling Lu faced a challenging task: Which artwork from the vast Phillips Collection could she imagine being in conversation with her own work for an exhibition there? She scoured the galleries, walking through rooms built in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. But she couldn’t decide.

Then Lu found a recording of music from one of many performances that have been hosted in the museum’s ornate music room since 1941.

She said she was shocked when she came across a 2015 recording of pianist Timo Andres playing Philip Glass’ Etude No. 16. “Oh my God, this is the piece,” she remembered thinking.[1] Not only did it echo the pulsating rhythms that exist visually in her own vibrantly hued circular paintings, but it also related to her background as a classically trained pianist.

The current Soundwaves exhibition brings together a dozen of Lu’s paintings of concentric circles that pulsate on the Phillips’ walls in the 33rd installment of the museum’s Intersections project.  Exhibition curator Vesela Sretenović describes Intersections as a dialogue between the curator and the artist, as well as between the artist and the museum. Artists are invited to spend time “feeling the space,” deciding what might connect their work to the museum. Sretenović summed up Lu’s choice of a piece of music as “brilliant.”

Soundwaves came together quickly, with Lu and Sretenović starting to talk in depth in September 2022. Lu pulled seven pieces from her ongoing One Hundred Melodies of Solitude series she has been working on for over a decade, creating five new works in the series specifically for the exhibition.

Five pieces hang on the right side of the exhibition space. Lu says they embody the higher notes on the piano, those played by the pianist’s right hand. The seven other canvases are spread across the other walls, a swath of chords to be struck by the player’s left hand.

“I was thinking about the fingers dancing on the keyboard, and the paintings in the space,” Lu said. When she first saw the gallery that would house the exhibition, Lu was impressed by the airy, tall ceilings that would give people the chance to imagine “how the notes play and dance.”


A grouping of five colorful round paintings by Linling Lu
Clockwise from left One Hundred Melodies of Solitude No. 238, No. 239, No. 240, No. 241 and No. 222. Photo by Caroline MacKinnon for East City Art

Lu said her work is not to be taken as “a literal translation of music,” but more of a way to evoke its “feelings, memories, and imagination.” Many of the colors she uses are drawn from nature and dreams.

The bands of color create waves that spread outwards like ripples formed by a pebble striking a multicolored pond.

In several of the exhibit’s paintings, Lu employs gradients of color next to each other, creating the illusion of movement. This phenomenon is present in No. 222, in which a small purple center expands outward in bands of radiant pinks, oranges and pale gold.

The large blue inner circle of No. 218 is like a calm, cloudless sky lit by a summer sun. The rings of No. 221 are like the tender pinks, browns and violets of a seashell you might hold up to your ear to hear the ocean.

Rather than play the Glass composition in an endless loop, visitors are directed to the recording via a QR code.

In what Sretenović described as a “prelude” to Soundwaves, the curator has also placed a number of striking round forms just outside Lu’s exhibit, including landscapes of blazing suns by Georgia O’Keeffe and Arthur Dove. Also included here is a mandala-like form by Washington Color School artist Paul Reed and a recent Phillips acquisition by Moira Dryer of a mixed-media red target shape.

Four circular paintings by Linling Lu are in a large room. A painting by Paul Reed is seen through a doorway on the left side of the photo
From the left, One Hundred Melodies of Solitude No. 178, No. 242, No. 218 and No. 99. Through the doorway on the far left is a glimpse of a painting by Paul Reed. Photo by Lee Stalsworth, courtesy of the Phillips Collection

Early influences
As a child, Lu remembers looking through her window at sunsets almost every day, “just looking at the color and the clouds.”

Having grown up in Zunyi, Guizhou province, a mountainous part of China, Lu emerged from long hikes in the countryside with memories of nature that continue to inform the palette she uses in her paintings.

Her father is a skilled player of the ehru, a traditional two-stringed instrument, and her mother enjoys singing. Lu studied piano, and music has been a constant companion even as her other interests took her elsewhere. “I could never live without music,” she said.

Lu studied landscape architecture at the Beijing Forestry University, in what she describes as a compromise with her parents. She was keen to study painting and art, and her major allowed her to take classes in architectural drawing and architectural watercolor.

While in Beijing, Lu would peruse bookshops for art books and museum catalogs, lingering over volumes with work by Georgia O’Keeffe and Wassily Kandinsky. She was drawn to O’Keeffe’s depiction of the natural world and use of color, and interested in Kandinsky’s expressive abstractions with ties to music, and both artists’ interest in synesthesia – or the blending of the senses – with the idea that music can be seen, and the visual can be heard.

In 2006 Lu moved to Baltimore where she studied art at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) and went on to earn an MFA there at the Hoffberger School of Painting. As an undergraduate, she appreciated Op Art. But it was often “a little bit too much for my eye; I need to find some balance.”

As a non-native English speaker, Lu said her early years in the U.S. were marked by not only listening to people speaking, but also the sound of birds chirping and leaves rustling. While painting, Lu realized she was meditating on her isolation, which she says “was very, very helpful” without the nearby support of friends and family.

Four circular paintings by Linling Lu
From left, One Hundred Melodies of Solitude No. 99, No. 221, No. 220 and No. 219. Photo by Lee Stalsworth, courtesy of the Phillips Collection

Asked about how she came to paint circles, Lu responds: “The circle found me.” During her landscape architecture studies, she learned how Moon Gates in traditional Chinese gardens are “transitions of two worlds.” She was drawn to this idea of the circle as suggesting “mysterious meanings about time and space.”[2]

Lu experimented at MICA with different shaped canvases, eventually starting the Solitude series in 2010. The series has been ongoing–she has recently been working on No. 255!

Lu doesn’t use tape when she creates her round paintings. Instead, she maps them out using a large compass with .3 mm pencil leads – the finest available for drafting. The residual graphite she meticulously paints over, adding several layers until the color and opacity is to her liking. “Making color adjustments in the painting process is like tuning an instrument.”[3]

Lu’s first paintings in the Solitude series were 46 inches in diameter, which she described as “a very human size – it feels like a big hug.” This is the size of four of the “right hand” paintings in Soundwaves. She went on to experiment with much smaller canvases, as well as larger ones up to 108 inches, which she was able to wrangle with an assistant.

The largest in Soundwaves, No. 99, measures a massive 93 inches. Its large deep purple center goes nearly to the edge of the painting, eclipsing a fiery corona that ranges from red to orange to pale yellow at its outer limit, nearly blending with the white wall behind it. Lu said this is the largest size she is capable of managing by herself.

While Lu’s paintings are pleasing to see online or in print, seeing them on a wall is something else entirely. Standing right next to one of these canvases, the colors beckon like a portal. Lu says: “I think they are supposed to be experienced in person.”

Intersections: Linling Lu Soundwaves, Feb. 9 – April 30, 2023. The Phillips Collection, 1600 21st Street, NW, Washington, DC.  Tuesday – Sunday 11 am–6 pm. https://www.phillipscollection.org/visit

[1] Unless otherwise noted, this quotation and all subsequent quotations are from a conversation with artist Linling Lu, exhibition curator Vesela Sretenović and the author.

[2] From email correspondence between artist Linling Lu and the author.

[3] From email correspondence between artist Linling Lu and the author.