Painting Air: Spencer Finch at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum

22 May

Spencer Finch began “painting air” in 1988 when, as a graduate student at the Rhode Island School of Design, he copied Claude Monet’s Basin at Argenteuil (1874). Attempting to mimic the master’s refraction of light into colors to capture how our experience of nature is ever-changing, Finch discovered a deep connection to Monet. Since then, Finch has remained similarly fixated on color and light; on serial observations; and on the impossibility of capturing our ephemeral experience of nature. Finch’s current exhibit (through July 29) at the RISD Museum offers his modern take on air, light, and multiple points of view. The exhibit consists of two parts: One half comprises Finch’s own work, pieces particularly influenced by his study of Monet. In the other half, Finch curates a selection of art from the RISD Museum collection.  Today’s focus will be a few highlights of Finch’s own work.

The expression “painting air” comes from an interview Monet gave in 1895: “I want to paint the air…and that is nothing short of impossible.” In a conversation with Judith Tannenbaum, RISD Museum’s  Richard Brown Baker Curator of Contemporary Art, Finch replied to this comment by noting that Edward Hopper wanted to “paint sunlight on the side of a house.”  From Monet he takes the idea of the “impossibility of representation, the impossibility of communication, the impossibility of making art.” From Hopper he likes what he calls a “Beckettian, absurd compulsion to do the impossible.” (All quotes are from the Exhibition Notes, No. 39, Winter 2012) To this he adds an intellectualism that leads him to catalogue, organize, and display.

Finch is not strictly a painter; in fact he seems to work in nearly every medium other than paint. The exhibit includes photographs; prints (of snowflakes and motes of dust on rays of sunlight!); multimedia sculpture in which ice melts and reforms; and an attempt to help us see the color spectrum as bees see it. And, yet, there is a cohesiveness. Finch seems to work his vision through each medium, much as Monet worked the vision through dozens of images of the cathedral at Rouen or a haystack. In some way, the serial repetition in Finch’s work is not just in the way he captures the same topic over and over (as in Taxonomy of Clouds or Thank You, Fog). It is rather, the essence of his oeuvre–a serial challenging of our perceptions. Monet painted serial images to capture the air and its subtle changes; Finch uses seriality to create what might be called a study of studies.

Taxonomy of Clouds (2006), for instance, is a series of photographs of clouds reflected in puddles around Brooklyn, NY. Each image is lovingly composed. Hung together, not quite carelessly, they become a sort of study of clouds over Brooklyn.  Reading the exhibit label, we learn that Finch researched each formation to understand what kind of clouds he’d photographed. While the photographs in the installation are not individually labelled, the title of the piece points toward Finch’s penchant for systematic classification. We don’t need to know what each cloud formation is. Once we know that each image might be of a distinct formation, we read the piece as a catalogue, looking for the similarities and details.

8456 Shades of Blue (after Hume (2008) takes on Scottish philosopher’s David Hume’s theory of missing shade of blue. The exhibit label tells us that Hume believed that humans only have knowledge of what they directly experience. Problematically, Hume also asserted that the human mind can create an idea without first being exposed to a complete experience. Finch uses seven different pigments to create all these drops of blue to invoke the shade of blue that is missing, playing on Hume’s concept contradictory concept. Could there be a shade of blue missing if we were to catalogue the nearly 8,500 shades that are here? 8456 Shades of Blue, Finch

The influence of Monet seems to culminate in Walden Pond (Morning Effect, March 13, 2007) and the exhibit’s eponymous installation Painting Air (2011). Both pieces take the landscape from which they were inspired and refract it into multiple views in an attempt to capture Finch’s experience there.

For Walden Pond, Finch arranged postcard images of Monet paintings in the shape of the pond, matching the blues, whites, and grays to what he experienced circling Walden Pond on a morning walk. On each postcard he initiates the time he noted this particular color at Walden Pond, where he was standing, and in what direction he was facing.  From far away, as seen here, the piece is a collage. From close up, a catalogue of how studying Monet has inflected Finch’s very observation of nature. Finch is always in dialogue with something–here he seems to bring Thoreau and Monet together in a sort of séance, asking the masters to help him comment on the intersection of art and nature.

The largest, and most stunning, piece in the exhibit is Painting Air.   The colors on the wall reflect colors Finch experienced on his most recent trip to Monet’s Giverny.  Hanging from a frame on the ceiling are glass panels that reflect the color, and the viewer (yes, that’s me, courtesy of Culture Husband). The panels sway gently as the room’s air is disturbed. Daylight streams in from a window, turning the glass plates into mirrors from one view, windows from others. Gently broken by the glass, reflected on the floor, mingled in the angles where reflection meets refraction, the blocks of color permeate the air. If you’ve ever been to Giverny, you are instantly transported there, even without knowing Finch’s inspiration, as Monet’s Giverny palette is ingrained in our contemporary imagination.

It’s a peaceful, park-like room, inviting contemplation. Finch’s cataloguing and seriality are not so evident here. But, as his colorful walls tint the streams of sunlight bouncing off the glass panels, I began to believe that he had finally achieved the impossible and painted air.

I highly recommend this exhibit, both Finch’s work and his cheeky curating.


Photography by Culture Husband. Thanks!


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