Review: Spencer Finch’s Painting Air at RISD Museum

Friday, February 24, 2012


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Can you see me now? Spencer Finch paints the air at the RISD Museum's newest exhibition.

Tuesday morning, I sat in the lobby in the Chace Center at the RISD Museum waiting for the press preview tour for their new exhibit, “Painting Air” to begin.  As we sipped our coffee and nibbled on muffins, Spencer Finch walked out of the elevators into the lobby accompanied by RISD director, John Smith and deputy director, Ann Woolsey.  I was able to pick Finch out immediately after previously watching a video online of him installing a work at the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego.  Not a very big man and somewhat shy, Finch led the group of us onto the elevator to head up to the third floor to see the completion of an exhibition two years in the making.

“Painting Air” is comprised of two main components, a selection of works from the museum’s collection chosen and curated by Finch and a collection of works by Finch channeling a desire to make what is translucent opaque featuring a new installation.  Before moving into the large room of Finch’s work, one of the first highlights pointed out to us is a Monet from the RISD collection entitled, “The Basin at Argenteuil” from 1874.  This work is the crux of the entire exhibition.  It represents Finch’s time at RISD as a graduate student when a friend dared him to copy the piece after Finch repeatedly commented on his initial thinking about he perceived as Impressionism’s superficial nature and naturally, the task was easier said than done.  I am sure Monet’s ghost has a good laugh every time a bold student stands corrected.

Spencer Finch

After leaving RISD and making the traditional artist relocation to New York, Finch found himself in front Monet’s water lilies at the Museum of Modern Art during a lunch break. This encounter triggered something in Finch that redirected his interests away from making social commentary and towards the Sisyphean challenge of creating abstract installations with a literal context, aiming to visualize the invisibility of atmosphere’s light and color.  Nothing does this more than the new installation and title piece created for this exhibition, “Painting Air.”  Large color swatches cover four walls at the front of the large gallery surrounding a large suspended grid of 112 hanging panes of glass.

The idea for the installation began to take root after Finch’s second trip to Monet’s town of Giverny.  Arriving on the grounds at dawn, Finch experienced Giverny as Monet would have and suddenly the famous lily pond evolved from a tourist spot to a laboratory.  Though the installation does not read controlled environment science lab nor is Finch’s background in science, it is clear that Finch utilizes, perhaps unknowingly, a version of the scientific method throughout his creative process complete with a testable hypothesis with a beautiful and poetic conclusion. 

The artist's insights

Tannenbaum did the majority of the talking during the press tour, but when Finch did speak about his work and his process, he was incredibly insightful and excitable especially regarding a work entitled “8456 Shades of Blue (After Hume).”  His description of this grid like piece of blue color combinations as a process of an eyedropper, inks, and foot tapping that lifted a veil revealing an analytical and creative mind.  Even though he is far from being rank with hubris, he has every right to be proud of his work.

The second area of the exhibition where Finch was able to pull from RISD’s permanent collection shares many of the secret treasures which have not been seen by public eyes for many years.  Unlike expected wall texts that accompany work that describe the work in terms of history or content, Finch’s wall texts are candid and feel like Finch is having a conversation with the reader rather than imposing an educational lesson. 

This is the first exhibition Spencer Finch has had in Providence since he was in graduate school.  Since then he has traveled the world, looking to experience things first hand.  This drive to see, experience, and then recreate for an audience keeps Finch curious and always on the edge of another art experiment.  I just think we are lucky that he looped Providence back in on his never-ending quest to paint air.

Painting Air: Spencer Finch: Friday, February 24 through Sunday, July 29, 2012; Museum of Art Rhode Island School of Design, Chace Center 20 North Main Street Providence, RI 02903 401 454-6500.

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