San Francisco

Chris Finley

Rena Bransten Gallery

ZIPPER Alan, GUTT Alex, DICKENSHEET Dean & Shirley . . . The collaged list of names, depicted in a large digital print by Chris Finley titled Lord Slug, 2004, appears random at first. But it soon becomes clear that the artist has picked out those most likely to have elicited taunts from elementary school classmates. Indeed, he apparently read the San Francisco White Pages from cover to cover in a gleefully puerile search that makes this work an immediate guilty pleasure. Unless, perhaps, your name happens to be SHATS Sofia. It’s a digression from Finley’s more labor-intensive, thematically weighty paintings, but one that points to an absurdist vision that is provocative and compelling.

Adolescent whims and conceptual strategies have always formed a compelling mix in Finley’s free-wheeling works. In the mid-’90s he translated computer desktop protocol into sculpture (turning Tupperware containers into “folders”) and constructed a series of installations representing the consecutive skill levels of video games. These projects played on the more childish associations of computer technology—an obsession that Finley also illustrated in garish, gooey enamel paintings depicting warped images of American excess, hyperbolic cartoon characters surrounded by overflowing sticky-sweet desserts.

The presence of the computer was more subdued in this exhibition of new paintings and sculpture, titled “fluttersuckers.” Finley’s interest in the world of boyhood—fishing, pop-culture icons, and stoner logic—endures, but his multifarious modes of presentation display an elegant formal complexity as they embody an inimitable take on personal and cultural themes. Here is an artist who may finally have grown up. Finley’s practice is that of an obsessive maker driven by endearingly peculiar impulses and an opaque private lexicon. “Fluttersuckers,” the press release explains, “refers to the characteristics of moths that flutter and ticks that suck.” This morsel of information points to the provocative subtexts and symbiotic relationships in images created with impressive sleight of hand.

The paintings that set the tone are rendered in a subdued palette of pale green and warm gray. These works in acrylic on canvas and acrylic ink on paper are composed of intricate arching lines and interlinked geometries that do indeed suggest a sense of fluttering while also recalling the urban cacophony of Julie Mehretu. Their subjects are powerful figures such as Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, whose image in Ticks, 2004, has been rendered, via a computer drawing program, as a balled tangle of interwoven lines, then distorted to emulate the shape of the titular creatures.

The exhibition’s tour de force, Moths, 2004, is a large, intricate painting in which stretched geometric patterns are fused into something that looks like Emilio Pucci’s take on Picasso’s Guernica. The piece is an impressionistic group portrait of nine members of George W. Bush’s first cabinet, a team whose policy reflects a willfully selfish ideology. Their likenesses are blurred beyond recognition yet their power is evoked by the imposing scale, and by semitransparent washes of color that suggest a light exuded by their leader.

Elsewhere Finley’s obsessive activities lead him to create visual non sequiturs, as in Up Country, 2004, a sculpture in which a plush toy SpongeBob SquarePants is impaled by intricately carved golf tees on a grid of pages from a potboiler novel in which every word has been circled. The show’s title piece, dated 2004, is a matrix of small objects—images of catfish and butterflies made from Shrinky Dink plastic and acrylic-painted wooden balls—pinned to the wall in a geometric pattern. The marble-size balls are adorned with a Hershey’s Kiss–like dollop of silver acrylic in which each peak sprouts a single gray hair, plucked from the artist’s head. A red circle on each ball turns out to be a cap from a toy gun. Kid stuff meets adult anxiety.

Glen Helfand