New York

Spencer Finch


In his previous work, Spencer Finch has wandered the world quixotically tilting his paintbrush at historically fraught sites and subjects: the ceiling over Freud's couch in Vienna, the patch of sky above Cape Canaveral where the space shuttle Challenger blew up, a Civil War battlefield. In each case, he puts a witty twist on his inevitable failure to depict a scene adequately. The sky above Canaveral is rendered as a small square of blue acrylic on a white sheet of paper, for instance—a tragicomically rigorous depiction of the site as seen from the ground. But Finch seems less concerned with the inability to capture the features of an iconic place or moment than with the limits of visuality per se, a vanishing point that is both his project's blessing and its curse.

Along with photographs and drawing, the artist's most recent show featured seven large-scale monochromatic mosaics. Spaced evenly along the walls, these large, blue color fields possessed, especially as a suite, a certain classical monumentality. Their individual surfaces were somewhat lacking in allure, though; it was only when a friend explained that the acrylic under paintings were based on photographs of snowstorms taken by mountain climbers that I saw in the tesserae the sketchy outlines of forms subtly distinguishing one mosaic from another. These differences were faint, but that faintness seemed the point, reflecting both the difficulty of seeing in general and the ironic sameness of heroic attempts to represent places like Everest and Annapurna. It is no coincidence that the most legible of the group, Avalanche (K2, 1978), 1998, was also the most mesmerizing, its hazily branching structure recalling a partially erased Brice Marden.

More modest in scale and conceit, the drawings and photographs in the rear gallery had even so a greater capacity to disarm, allowing Finch's ideas to sneak up on the viewer in varied guises. In Forty-eight Views of Loch Ness, 1997, forty-eight banal snapshots (encased in plastic frames and arranged in a grid) seem to await the appearance of something monstrous. Peripheral Error On Interstate 10 (Green Buick mistaken for a Blue Cadillac), 1998, a blur of pastel on the edge of the paper, reveals a whimsical side of Finch's preoccupation with retinal phenomena. With its less-than-serious attempt to record the presence of a famous ghost, Trick or Treat for the Ghost of Herr Meyer (exposed 12:00 am 10/31/97 to 12:00 am 11/1/97, fourth floor of the Konstakadamie, Stockholm), 1997, a sheet of paper coated with cyanotype emulsion and sporting a border of brightly colored sucking candy, shows how that same whimsicality can slide toward the twee. The work that did everything well, winningly combining all of Finch's preoccupations, was a simple watercolor called Study for Alchemy (Spire of St. Klara's Church, Stockholm August 21, 1997), 1997, in which the artist painted the golden ball on top of a church spire in plein air at different hours of the day and arranged the twelve resulting images in a parabola on the same sheet of paper. In the play of light on golden surfaces, Finch reproduces the luminescent possibilities of vision, proving that it's when he goes after something relatively modest that he comes back with something bordering on majestic: the world (rather than the zeitgeist) as he sees it.

Thad Ziolkowski