April 16, 2010

Artifice and Approximation

To consider the work of Spencer Finch is to witness an artist relating to the beauty and complexity of the natural world while maintaining an allegiance to contemporary art practices. Finch’s installations involve his approximations of perceived natural phenomena and are simultaneously gorgeous and make-shift. They somehow engage us with equal parts poetry and artifice, sometimes referencing 19th Century notions of representation, or molecular structure, or the tenuous relationship of memory and geography, even as the materials Finch uses to create his installations reveal an artist clearly enamored of process and keenly in love with the quotidian.

Take for example, Sunlight in an Empty Room (Passing Cloud for Emily Dickinson, Amherst, MA, August 28, 2004). In what is arguably his best-known installation, Finch “ostensibly re-creates the exact color of sunlight in Emily Dickinson’s backyard” with 100 fluorescents, blue gel filters, monofilament and clothespins.(1) Without debating the futility of just how one might attempt such an endeavor with mere industrial light fixtures and crumpled blue gels, our comprehension of what Finch is attempting gives one pause: to actually “represent” an atmospheric moment of sunlight as if witnessed through a cloud. Can we appreciate the work as a “subjective approximation” rather than an attempt at representation of that particular color of late August sunlight in 2004, and how does that shift importance to attendant supplements such as the title, wall text or documentation materials? Does Finch seriously expect contemporary art viewers to let down their often cynical yet resolutely skeptical postmodern guard and allow his grab-bag of wrinkled plastic and fluorescent tubes to seduce us with sublime reverie? It’s as if Finch is playing Don Quixote to joust with the “white cube” windmill of a visually-jaded, “seen it all” art world.

At a recent informal discussion with artists, students and faculty at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Finch was relaxed and open to queries about his process and practice, enthusiastically sharing his intentions. Surprisingly, we learned that he began as a ceramicist but later switched to sculpture, working his way through its minimalist and post-minimalist diversity, to come out on the side of process. His current practice revolves around random, natural wonder that inspires both research and mediation as he negotiates his way through the often incredibly detailed processes that he will put these diverse materials through.

That his work bears subtle relationships to earlier forms of conceptualism as well is evidenced in his 2001 piece, Rainbow (Brooklyn). Two black-and-white photographs serve to “document” a rainbow Finch glimpsed briefly from the F Train in Brooklyn. Finch says he “remembered” where he was when he saw the rainbow, then used maps and calculations to locate the “approximate” geographical points of where the “legs” of the phenomena would have touched the ground. The photographs are of those locations: a garage door and a grocery store. The tenuous reference to transcendent beauty that Finch witnessed is far from evident in these bland photos, yet to suggest that Finch would be better served to “represent” a rainbow in a more traditional fashion is tantamount to denying the last 100 years of visual art.

Mark Godfrey has written that Finch respects the “prohibitions around natural representation” in contemporary art by showing that the “pot of gold” lies at garage doors and grocery stores, and that this demonstrates that romance and myth are dead.(2) I disagree with this assessment, instead I find that Finch’s work reflects our futility in reconciling our collective memory of beauty, as embodied in sunlight and once represented in painting, with a learned specificity of time and space – is this not a romanticized quest?

Where Finch really begins to intrigue though is in his installations that build layer upon layer of “reality” combined with memory and our accumulated “knowledge.” In West (Sunset in my Motel Room, Monument Valley, January 26, 2007, 5:36 pm–6:06 pm) he stacks a bank of nine TV monitors running looped stills from John Ford’s The Searchers, turning the monitors to the wall to create an “approximation” of sunset he viewed from his motel room. The selection of a Western refers to dual romanticizations, in both American history and the Hollywood version. Apply the additional sense of sadness that that TV glow can create, the “melancholy feel” of motel occupancy that Finch has said he wanted to “reference” with TV’s, and we have the conflation of these psychological “references.”(3) Whether they disrupt or over-power the seemingly tranquil ambiance of Finch’s representation of remembered motel-room light is a topic for us to further unpack. Does the ability to walk between the wall and the TV monitors, and recognize these dual tropes of Americana and Hollywood, divert our attention from a pure, aesthetic perception of light?

This then remains the ultimate challenge for Spencer Finch. For the viewer to proceed from an initial visual perception of one of Finch’s installations to a deepening, resonant understanding of both his process of research and mediation and its attendant meaning is a difficult journey. During our conversation, Finch briefly touched upon this as a dilemma, that there is information that is not conveyed simply within the visuality of the installations but in fact must be grasped through the attendant documentation of supplemental materials such as press kits, reviews, or wall text.

A perfect example of this is Night Sky, Over the Painted Desert, Arizona, 1/9/04. To produce this work, Finch mixed colors in a parking lot by flashlight to match the color of the sky. Then it really gets fun:

“After weighing the physical mass of each pigment in the mixture (Mars black, cobalt blue, manganese violet, and titanium white), the artist calculated the molecular ratio of each colour in the combination. With 401 incandescent bulbs of varied sizes, each bulb representing a particular atom, the artist created electrified models of each pigment's molecular structure. The proportions of the different types of molecules in the sculpture exactly correspond to those of the original colour mix.”(4)

So what appears as a random, abstract assortment of various sized light-bulbs is in actuality a complex “approximation” of the structural relationship of molecular pigmentation to light. Finch has said that he is “not interested in abstraction” per se, but instead focused “on the actual conventions of representation as a subject itself.”(5)

It is imperative that we understand that this quest Finch is on is not about aestheticized notions of “subjective approximations” of perception but is instead about the recognition of structures both visual and intellectual, that the acquisition of knowledge about this kind of installation art requires both our observational and intellectual skills. Artworks perceived initially as abstract and random can have multiple layers of process and meaning, as evidenced by supplementary texts and press materials, and this information is as essential for the apprehension of its meaning as it is as uniformly relevant to its artifice. This is a reflection on the current atmosphere of contemporary conceptualism and the increasingly complex dichotomy between what is or can be merely visually apprehended and the theoretical component of much contemporary art work that may remain cognitively shrouded. Ultimately, it is the mediation between this conceptually challenging visual administration and the “inadequacies of representational techniques” that artists like Spencer Finch are addressing.

I wish to thank the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Curator of Contemporary Art, Sarah Newman and Sarah Durkee, Vice President of Public Affairs, for inviting me to facilitate the first of their “Artist To Artist” discussion series, of which Spencer Finch was the inaugural guest.

Image: West (Sunset in my Motel Room, Monument Valley, January 26, 2007, 5:36 pm–6:06 pm) (2007), 9-channel synchronized video installation with 9 TV monitors, © Copyright 2007 by Spencer Finch.


1. Ludwin, Victoria. “Spencer Finch: As Much of Noon As I Can Take Between My Finite Eyes,” ArtCritical.com, December, 2004.

2. Godfrey, Mark. “Spencer Finch: Measures and Pleasures,” Parkett, No. 79, 2007, pp. 14-19.

3. www.nyartsmagazine.com.

4. “Gravity Always Wins”, booklet produced for Dundee Contemporary Arts (UK) exhibit in 2008.

5. www.nyartsmagazine.com.

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