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Spencer Finch’s ‘Painting Air’ at the RISD Museum

Mission: Impossible
By GREG COOK  |  March 6, 2012

INSPIRATION Monet’s The Basin at Argenteuil.

The question at the heart of Spencer Finch's art is: how to recreate fleeting impressions, like the green-blue-brown surface of the Hudson River or the sunlight filtering down from the Pantheon's dome in Rome. You could argue that this is the goal of most art, but most art talks about experience — a painting of a sunset is a depiction of the sunset, it's the sunset at one remove — while Finch aims to actually give you the sunset.

The Brooklyn-based, RISD-trained artist's method typically involves engineering contraptions that look clunky but when they work they recreate the color or the light of a specific place at a specific time. His 2008 retrospective "What Time Is It On the Sun?" at Mass MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts, presented a giant wad of blue plastic sheets suspended from the ceiling in front of an array of white fluorescent lights. It was supposed to recreate the light at Emily Dickenson's Amherst, Massachusetts, home. And by some alchemy as the light passed through that blue plastic "cloud," it did become the crisp sunlight of the Berkshires.

Curator Judith Tannenbaum writes that Finch got onto these ideas when he copied Claude Monet's 1874 painting The Basin at Argenteuil from RISD's collection in 1988 while he was a graduate student. The two paintings are the jumping off point for "Painting Air" at the RISD Museum (224 Benefit St, Providence, through July 29). Finch told Tannenbaum that he is inspired by Monet's attempts to capture the essence of his subjects as well as his "absurd compulsion to do something impossible." (Both paintings are in the show — Monet's original, of course, has much more sensuousness and soul — as well as a room of artworks Finch curated from the museum's collection.) The show's title comes from Monet's 1895 statement: "I want to paint the air . . . and that is nothing short of impossible."

Here Finch tries to make visible a purple hue seen by bees but invisible to people; he matches the colors he sees at Walden Pond in Massachusetts to colors in Monet paintings; he photographs clouds reflected in puddles. While Finch cites Monet and other painters as influences, his work more directly connects to the tradition of the installations of James Turrell, Robert Irwin, Doug Wheeler, and other artists of Los Angeles' "Light and Space" movement of the 1960s — in which the art seems to evaporate, leaving you with pure experiences of curiously physical manifestations of light and color — as well as Hans Haacke's '60s explorations of natural systems, from artificial rainbows to hovering parachutes. Like these artists, Finch's work sits at the intersection of science, psychology, phenomenology, and art. It's a blend of abstraction and conceptualism that comes out the other side as a sort of realism.

Sky (Over Franz Joseph Glacier, April 8, 2008, 10:40 am) is a humming Ice-o-matic that every 11 minutes dumps ice down a chute, where it sits and melts, dripping into a white box filled with water dyed sky blue. There are a number of intriguing and funny ideas here: turning a New Zealand sky into water, fed by a clunky model of a glacier, and capturing it in a box. The blue, taken out of context, is so brilliant that it feels artificial.

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Related: Fall Art Preview: Old meets new this season, Making the RISD Museum sizzle, Two different approaches at the RISD Museum, More more >
  Topics: Museum And Gallery , 2008, Claude Monet, Judith Tannenbaum,  More more >
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