On ViewJohn Berggruen Gallery
March 28 – May 5, 2018
Like an athlete bent on extreme challenges, Spencer Finch tests the limits of visibility. Here, in works on paper from the past ten years, he applies his observational powers to the colors of the Pacific Ocean or California darkness. For example, in Color Test (441) (2018), one of three new lightboxes, he takes on the number of colors the human eye can distinguish (and doesn’t get far, given that it’s in the millions). More clinical, Poke in the Eye (Left Eye, Outside Edge, Strong Pressure) (2010) records in watercolor a physiological experience visible only to the artist, while Lump (of concrete) Mistaken for a Pile (of dirty snow) #1 (2010), lends sculptural embodiment to a misperception—a conceptual monument to the vagaries of immediate experience, to which fallibility lends authenticity. Aided by sensors and geo-positioning in worldwide investigations of light, Finch remains based in the human subject, which is simply, “myself.”
To preserve the complexity of his experience, Finch avoids making images, with their implications of closure or union with nature, but rather arranges color samples on white grounds, where the intervening spaces leave room for imagination. With the exception of a wonderful rendering of cumulus clouds in Scotch tape, images per se only appear here as ghostly photographic reflections: Waking Dream (2018), a series of photographs taken at nightfall, records the gradual emergence of objects reflected in Finch’s studio window, while Reflection Study (Kenrokuen) (2017) records layered reflections like Monet’s waterlilies in a Japanese pond. In the absence of images, Finch resorts to codes. Yellowstone Hike (Clear Lake trail) (2018) documents colors observed on a hike in a series of ready-made Pantone swatches, while Maine Landscape (Atlantic Ocean from Isle au Haut, low tide) (2017) presents color impressions as discrete patches of watercolor. Do the subtle touches of the watercolor brush more truthfully register the intimate impact of sensations? When Finch applies Vladimir Nabokov’s alphabetic color code to the words of a poem by A. R. Ammons in Word Rain (Tertiaries) (2018), the color patches scattered across the page suggest the everyday blending of language and visual experience in consciousness.
Like Robert Smithson’s “Non-Sites,” these works offer surrogate experiences, where colors float in disembodied arrays, but—as in Proust’s “patch of yellow wall”—colors can attain perceptual immanence, constitutive of the self, in privileged encounters. Finch’s immersive installation of 2,983 hand-painted blue squares at the National September 11 Memorial Museum, for example, asks viewers to recall the exact blue of the sky that day, and endows each blue with a metonymic connection to a life lost. At Berggruen, RGB (My first color memory) (2018) seeks, more modestly, to recreate the blue of a childhood toy. Rather than juxtaposing samples, Finch orchestrates hundreds of glowing dots of red, blue, and green in a lightbox, modelling the physiological response of sensors in the retina. Harking back to Georges Seurat’s efforts to rationalize vision (as if Seurat had painted monochromes), it presents color as a complex, integrated electronic impulse, yet without the French painter’s somber, material density.
In other lightboxes, with artificial light as his medium and freed from external references, Finch indulges in unrestrained color orchestration. Taking inspiration from the color grids of Paul Klee, Finch pursues the Bauhaus integration of technology and intuition, finding in the externalized circuitry of the lightbox an extension of the intuitive, Gestalt-driven networks of his mind. Completely self-referential, Squared Squares (21) (2018) adopts a mathematical problem as an armature: the smallest number of squares that can be inscribed in a square. Here, Finch considered generating colors by algorithm, but when he didn’t like the results he decided on hues of his own. He follows the same intuitive path in Color Test (441), layering Fujitrans to create darker, denser colors, but also without the weight of lived experience.
As though to compensate, Light in an Empty Room (my childhood bedroom) (2018) abandons the lightboxes in favor of homemade technology, to recreate the room where Finch slept as a child. Two windows allow lights with colored filters, positioned outside, to project partially overlapping rectangles onto the inner wall, one representing the warm glow from a neighbor’s house, and the other the blue flicker of the neighbor’s TV. Outside the window, a toy train carrying a flashlight runs in circles, generating intermittent, moving rectangles of white light, which evoke the headlights of passing cars. It takes a few moments for the eyes to adjust to these subtle but evocative monochromes, but they are refreshing and poignant after the uniform, digital brilliance of the lightboxes. Binary Star (Antares) (2018), more light-hearted, lends Finch’s inward turn a cosmic dimension: like splayed, candy-striped light sabers, ten fluorescent fixtures, carefully calibrated with filters, recreate the colored radiation of the paired stars of Antares. Their play of light and shadow on the wall lends astrophysics the aura of childhood fantasy and, as with all the works in this exhibition, bridges the gap between scientific measurement and subjective reverie.
Hearne Pardee is a contributor to the Brooklyn Rail.