Los Angeles

Chris Finley

ACME.

To be honest, I’ve always found Chris Finley’s work hit-or-miss at best. His early- to mid-’90s bricolages of chopped and tailored Tupperware containers, pencils, and other dime-store miscellany seemed to succeed mostly when they failed to deliver on their attempts to stand in for information-storage systems, instead simply offering curious three-dimensional compositions. And his mid- to late-’90s installations and paintings based on video games, while displaying technical facility and ambition, often managed to be no more entertaining or compelling than their source material.

Early in 2000, however, an exhibition at Jack Tilton Gallery in New York signaled a bold leap, with paintings in which chaos and distortion took on an odd lyricism, dearly delivered with the help of digital imaging technology but not reduced to being “about” that technology. Instead of using old media to make products about new media, or worse, using old media to make products about the products of new media, Finley simply put old and new together, and pushed his paintings to a new level. His latest canvases (all 2001) clearly stem from this logic and this sense of precise disarray.

Indeed, these recent paintings are fastidiously screwed up. For Finley, the computer that generates his designs serves as a stylistic and historical blender into which he has tossed the strange formal devices and warped figures of Francis Bacon, the energy of mid-twentieth century gestural abstraction and earlier Futurist experiments, the blocked-in color of postpainterly abstraction and hard-edge painting, the cartoonishness of Pop, and the stylistic signatures of computer graphics and image-manipulation software. But while the combination of these ingredients already sounds promising, the cocktail Finley offers up is far more potent. The six paintings here-actually two variations each on three source images, tweaked to the point that you can tell only that the artist started with something—have a kind of elegant violence and a color sensibility that oscillates between harmony and discord. Functioning as portraits of figure/forms wrenched radically out of shape and posed in shallow spaces with stagelike floors and backdrops, the paintings both beckon and threaten. Hovering above dark ellipses that read as contradictorily calm shadows beneath them, the dynamic figures seem like volatile creatures, frozen in motion and sealed behind glass. You want to get close enough to study them, but each painting tends to push you back to a safe distance where you can keep an eye on its every move.

Flat-out unnerving and weird, and consistently mesmerizing no matter how long you look at them, these works fall into parallel traditions of representing the uncanny and making the familiar strange. Appropriately they draw on new technology to help deliver and describe images that are bothersomely fresh, pushing the medium itself along a new path and doing what important painting has done in the past and what one seldom expects it to do anymore: change how we see things. I went to this show hoping simply that Finley hadn’t backpedaled from the progress he had made a couple years ago. I certainly didn’t expect to be blown away like this.

Christopher Miles