San Francisco

Chris Finley

Literally toying with our understanding of the term “interactivity,” Chris Finley conducts the labyrinthine world of the computer game into the gallery. Since 1997, the artist has been producing a series of related exhibitions of figurative paintings based on his own digitally generated caricatures of suburban life juxtaposed with quirky installations of toys and domestic objects. His goal seems to be to turn the gallery-going experience into a decidedly low-tech yet arguably highbrow version of Nintendo.

The title of each successive show in the series—“Level One,” “Level Two,” etc.—invokes the difficulty levels of a computer game (Finley predicts he will create eight altogether). In “Level Four,” the most recent show, the viewer first encounters Level Linker Download, 1999, an installation that brings to mind Joan Miró’s 1936 parrot-topped Object: A baseball mounted on a square of faux cowhide hangs above a long plastic rain gutter attached to the wall at an angle, creating a slope that leads to a white mailbox sitting on the gallery floor. This is all one can see, yet the accompanying documentation also lists as media a ladybug earring, a butterfly magnet, paperback books, a handheld cassette recorder loaded with an audiotape, and a videotape. Is this a test of the viewer’s faith in the artist’s word? Or are these mysterious elements actually packed away inside the mailbox, and if so, is the viewer meant to open it? Finley has tempted viewers to amuse themselves with his work before—in “Level One,” he presented a garbage can filled with eclectic playthings, and in “Level Three” he invited visitors to the show to plant their feet in marked positions and smack their head or hand against a ball to activate a mooing sound—but Level Linker Download represents a more subtle provocation to engage with the artwork.

Although rendered in Finley’s characteristically flat style, the three paintings included in “Level Four,” created by projecting computer-generated images onto a canvas and applying sign enamel to fill in the color, also ask for the viewer’s interaction, in terms of making sense of the bizarre amalgamations of images and forms. Each canvas presents a modernist, A-frame house peopled by cartoonlike characters that viewers might recognize from “Level Two” (such as the sinister mother figure who resembles the Bride of Frankenstein). Behind each house is a barely recognizable, distorted depiction of an animal’s mouth. In Drool House, 1998, a giant whale’s mouth looms nightmarishly at the top of the composition. Finley renders the mouths somewhat cubistically—tongues, teeth, and orifices are flattened and rearranged. In other works, Finley creates a vertiginous sense of activity. Sweat House, 1998, for example, presents the image of a perspiring, barbell-lifting housewife in duplicate. In capturing some rudimentary sense of movement, Finley manages to convey the allure of today’s burgeoning “interactive” technology in his multilayered, imaginative work.

Reena Jana