Critics’ Picks

Spencer Finch, 8456 Shades of Blue (After Hume) (detail), 2008, 28 watercolors on paper, dimensions variable.


Spencer Finch

RISD Museum
224 Benefit Street
February 24–July 29

As a graduate student at RISD, Spencer Finch copied Claude Monet’s Basin at Argenteuil, 1874, on a dare. The replica is now on view several paces from the original, in “Painting Air,” an exhibition staged by Finch that features his own work alongside pieces from the university’s collection. His choice of Monet is telling, reminding us that Finch—a maker of minimal and often abstract watercolors, photographs, and installations—is in fact a conceptual landscape painter. Like Monet before him, Finch probes his optical experience of the natural world—and the subjective limits of his perceptions. To describe the sublime qualities of atmosphere, light, reflectivity, and color is to wrestle with paradox; the poignancy of Finch’s work lies in his steadfast aim to quantify these phenomenological conditions at once fugitive and singular.

In the first of the show’s two sections, Finch has arranged others’ pieces—ranging from Peruvian textiles to Willem de Kooning abstractions. The grouping is unusual and provocative, and the connections to the artist’s own practice are not immediately apparent. The second space houses Finch’s own work from the past five years. His wall-size 8456 Shades of Blue (After Hume), 2008, comprises twenty-eight sheets of twenty-two-by-thirty-inch paper. In making the piece, based on a thought experiment posed by philosopher David Hume, Finch diluted blue inks one drop at a time, creating with every drip a unique shade that he then applied to each successive panel. The resulting grid seems as straightforward as it is unfathomable. The exhibition shares its title with the largest and perhaps most ambitious work on view: a site-specific installation of over one hundred square sheets of glass, hanging from a grid in the ceiling, and surrounded by a mural of colors based on Monet’s garden in Giverny, France. One person walking by is enough: A zephyr gently orbits the pieces of glass on their axes, and their surfaces swell in turn with reflective color. With “Painting Air” Finch not only describes the intangible quality of light, but transforms it into substantive material.