Spencer Finch travels a lot. Often alone. Always in the pursuit of an ineffable moment, a moment of connection where past and present, memory and experience, personal desire and world history collide.
Finch visits loaded, often empty, places where the residue (or fall-out) of what happened there still resonates. Places like Los Alamos, New Mexico; the city of Troy; Loch Ness; Cape Canaveral; Tombstone, Arizona. Sites of disasters, loss, murder, war: these are not your average tourist destinations. Some might say Finch's attraction to them is evidence of a morbid character, but such people obviously do not know his art, which somehow always manages to find brightness and colour, levity and a bitter-sweet hope in even the darkest corners of the world.
In Los Alamos - the site of the world's first atomic bomb tests - Finch matched the blue of the sky and then determined the molecular structure of the pigment. Fabricated as a fully functional set of hanging lamps in the configuration of cobalt, titanium oxide and ultramarine molecules, the final work hangs spider-like over our heads, a reconstruction of a torn atmosphere. Radiant, the work's seductive luminosity embodies both the shine of the man-made sun in the pre-dawn sky and the flash of insight that accompanies an epiphany.
In numerous other works Finch has explored similar instances in which our individual and collective perception is pushed to the limits by what looms before our eyes; instances when you can only stare in disbelief, when you are blinded by the light or cast into darkness. This struggle to grasp fully what is seen is; at heart, an attempt to achieve subjective orientation, to locate oneself in the world and its history. To this end, Finch's two-fold investigation concerns both the empirical aspects of vision and the rationalist question of perception. Systems, scientific and otherwise, underlie much of the work, even as they readily give way to looser, more intuitive decision-making processes.
Probing the physiological limits of sight, Finch has rendered both his field of vision (a lopsided oval shape, made in rhinestones to match the colour of the sky over Roswell, New Mexico) and the blind spots in his eyes (two warped ovals, also in rhinestones). Turning his attention to both the furthest reaches of the galaxy and the edge of consciousness, he frequently attempts to depict not only what he cannot see (painting the darkness while in the dark), but also what he thought he saw (the end of a rainbow) and occasionally what he may wish to see (the colours in his dreams). Finch highlights the way in which duration parallels perception, favouring transitory moments such as sunrise and sunset. Like the works of Jan Dibbets, Finch's projects are often structured over time, his observations focusing on a specific site as the light shifts and shadows crawl. Eschewing photography, he prefers the archaic scientific habit of making drawings and notations of his observations. His rare photographic projects, such as 48 Views of Loch Ness (1997), significantly play on the deceptive aspects of the medium.
Sensing that our observations must be tied to experience if we are to get at the truth of something, Finch is compelled continually to expand the scope of his projects, returning to the same sites at all hours, to look again and again. He travelled to Rouen to visit the cathedral painted by Claude Monet but found the building closed for renovation. Undeterred, Finch decided to make a series of paintings depicting the colours of the various objects in his hotel room. By the time he had completed the arduous task of matching 55 colours, the changing light had altered every one. Thus, the work grew into a triptych, a wry blend of Conceptual and Impressionist methodologies, representing the same set of colours in the morning, afternoon and evening. As Finch is fascinated with the interaction of the physiological and psychological aspects of perception, the way our inner world casts a veil over the outer, it makes sense that he would travel thousands of miles to make a work that explored the tiniest details of his hotel room. For him vision is an act of projection as much as of apprehension.
This psychological extension of the gaze is made explicit in another painting: Ceiling (above Freud's Couch, 19 Berggasse, 2/18/94 Morning Effect) (1995). A large pinkish-white oval, the work is deceptively layered. You cannot help but be transported to Freud's study and to imagine the scores of other eyes that once played over the blank surface of his ceiling while paradoxically gazing deeply inward. This double displacement - Freud's ceiling on to the wall, the viewer on to his couch - creates a moment of profound self-reflection. Metamorphosing before our eyes, the painting becomes a screen for our memories and a mirror of our subconscious desires.
The underlying suggestion in this work, that by closing our eyes we might see more clearly, that blindness is a key to insight, is repeated in a later series of large, almost monochrome, mosaics entitled 'Wandering Lost on the Mountains of Our Own Choice' (1998). Based on images of snowstorms at the peaks of mountains such as K2 and Everest, they pay homage to Robert Rauschenberg's all-white paintings. Yet the gleam of the tiles, their gridded aspect and obvious weight, emphasize the fact that these are not paintings and that their meaning must be located elsewhere: in their conscious attempt to depict snow-blindness and to capture a sense of being lost. And, ultimately, in their evocation of the Sublime.
Born in the wake of the Enlightenment's call to Reason, the Sublime cast the human condition - our ignorance and mortality - into stark relief. It asserted that not everything could be known or understood and insisted that our place would forever be in the shadows, even if we were occasionally struck by lightning. Finch's work reflects a similar sensibility, albeit one tempered by a deeper, perhaps more quixotic understanding of the irrational and a slacker's willingness to forgive shortcomings in all things.
Thus his recognition that to yearn for the Sublime is both futile and hackneyed does not stop Finch from seeking out evidence of its existence. How else are we to understand his incessant journeys? His fascination with nature, the desert, the sky, the sun, the mountains, the sea and even outer space? His obvious, endearing Romanticism? The Sublime dictates that we turn our gaze heavenward, and Finch's eyes are perpetually lifted.
Darkness and light. Blindness and insight. Nature and science. These dichotomies arise in Finch's work only to have their usefulness and validity interrogated. Their too-easy formulas and their promise of an absolute veracity are not to be trusted. His work for the past decade has consciously distilled these issues and has grown richer, more potent. Resisting conclusion, Finch nevertheless aspires to a greater appreciation of the problem. A small watercolour in his studio made me realize this. The work depicts a series of glasses in which the level of the liquid inside has diminished incrementally. The colour of each glass becomes darker as your eyes move across the paper. Finch explained that he had mixed pigment into a glass of water and used it to paint the glass each day over about a month. As the water evaporated, the pigment grew stronger until finally there was nothing but pigment left at the bottom of the glass. This simple exercise sums up a process central to Finch's entire practice: loss results in intensity.
First published in Issue 75