When we think abstractly about artists, we often envision cold lonely studios, a can of beans chased by whiskey, or maybe even a bloody ear – after all, art history is rife with these types of scenarios. However, contemporary artists are anything but depressed and narrow-minded. In fact, many of today’s artists realize that their visions are not just confined to their literal art, and they think beyond the canvas.
An artist fitting this contemporary description returns to his old Providence stomping grounds to curate a new exhibition entitled Painting Air at the RISD Museum. Spencer Finch graduated with a Master’s degree in sculpture from Rhode Island School of Design in 1989, the same year when Japanese buyers were hoarding masterpieces from the Impressionism movement. Soon after this amazing boom came an incred ible crash. With his MFA in hand, Finch left Providence for New York. Even though he was living in an artist’s mecca, the art community’s attention eventually began to stray from New York and focus instead on the activity from artists coming out of Goldsmith’s College in London. It was the perfect time for Finch to experiment with a sketchbook full of collected ideas; a successful career has followed.
With a bachelor’s degree in comparative literature, Finch’s creative process can be traced back to the foundations of his understanding of the written word. He is never making something from nothing; he is interacting with the world via his sculptural works in the same way he was taught to interact with literature. Even though his body of work may seem abstract, it is based in a very literal experience. Art, like a novel or text, makes connections and draws references from other sources. Both can challenge and embrace scientific or historical knowledge; both can transport the viewer/reader to another place and time. To explore the vast tapestries of relationships, Finch creates sculptural installations that may seem abstract and minimal, but are instead extremely rich with (hidden) references.
Now mid-career, Finch will be showing in Providence for the first time since he graduated from RISD, which brings many things full circle for the artist. A major source of inspiration for this show is the work of Monet – specifically a work that Finch copied while he was in graduate school entitled The Basin at Argenteuil (1874). The Japanese shared Finch’s interest with Monet. Japan holds a special place in Finch’s heart as he spent a year in Japan’s cultural center, Kyoto, while still an undergrad. Kyoto’s numerous historic Japanese gardens feature highly abstract landscapes, which make literal references to Buddhism. Much like the influence of reading literature, these elements of Japanese gardens are some of the creative undertones in Finch’s work.
The references to Finch’s personal life in Painting Air are not obvious to the viewer without some knowledge of the artist, but it’s a special treat for those willing to meditate on the work. The exhibit’s title came out of a visit to Monet’s town of Giverny and a statement made by the famous artist in 1895: “I want to paint the air... and that is nothing short of impossible.”
Those not looking for an analytical experience will certainly find Finch’s attempt to literally paint air an interesting and aesthetically beautiful one as they gaze upon a play of color and light using 100 pieces of suspended reflective glass. The viewer is able to interact with the glass through the glass’s apparent movement set off from the motion of people moving in front of the work. “As abstract and ephemeral as some of Finch’s projects appear to be, they are based in fact and scientific phenomena,” says Judith Tannenbaum, RISD’s first Richard Brown Baker Curator of Contemporary Art. “He acutely observes natural occurrences, which he then filters through memory as well as literary, artistic and scientific accounts. The results are often poetic, as he tries to make visible what cannot easily be seen.”
Painting Air is an idea that stretches beyond the canvas, literally and figuratively. The curatorial staff at RISD gave Finch free rein inside their collection storage to select a series of works for a conjoining exhibition. Some of the works reference tonalism (the opposite of the lightness of Impressionism), while Finch selects others in which he sees connections, creating a visual comparative essay.
This unique exhibition serves as more than just the return of one of our own. In addition to the legendary stereotypes of absinthe drinks and destitution, it opens our eyes to the form of the modern artist. In contemporary times, artists such as Finch continue to explore reinventing themselves for our history once more.
Painting Air is on display at RISD’s Chase Center February 24-July 29. Visit the RISD Museum website for more information.