Perhaps most popularly identified as the High Line guy for his 2009 public art installation inaugurating Chelsea’s elevated greenway on Manhattan’s west side, Spencer Finch’s “Painting Air” exhibition at the RISD Museum is a two- part survey that includes an overview of Finch’s career set against a backdrop of selections he made from the museum’s permanent collections — essentially offering something for everyone.
Opening with Monet’s painting “The Basin at Argenteuil” as inspiration, Finch introduces commonality in the shared premise of the en plein air method as a central painterly convention, evidenced in his works- on-paper and three-dimensional, multi-media installations.
At the exhibition’s opening in late February, Finch mentioned Robert Smithson among his career influences; adding his own sensibility is in keeping with traditions of landscape painting. Continuity amid the seeming disparity involves an appreciation of nature, time and place. The “High Line” Creative Time project, his first major public commission in New York City, explored light unique to its environment.
Finch has made art projects from Norway to New Zealand, a trajectory that follows the sun in a self-styled Go West expansionism, recording effects of light in various geographic locations. His aesthetic builds upon empirical information gathered to support the phenomenon of sunlight as an ephemeral force that, when properly documented, has reproducible effect. Data collection is fundamental to Finch’s painterly deconstruction, helping him to recreate the experience of the light he’s witnessed. Annotated information flips between method and playful experimentation as he explores ways in which light defines the experience of seeing.
“Bee Purple” is a small project adaptation focused on the ultraviolet light spectrum that humans can’t see, but bees are able to perceive as they pollinate flowers. Draped to eclipse incoming light, his ad-hoc bee environment reads to the human eye as green, but for bees, it’s the color purple.
“Sky: Over Franz Joseph Glacier” startles with sound and is amusing in action that features an industrial-
sized ice machine noisily churning out blue-tinted ice cubes, falling onto a flume before melting into a pool of blue-tinted water on the floor. This blue relates to color Finch saw in New Zealand; he explores the blue further using duplicate cubes as his pigment on paper for a set of drawings.
Finch’s works-on-paper illustrate the immediacy of process, ranging from reductive drawings involving white
as achromatic, maximum lightness to those which are delineations of every color in Finch’s paint box. The artist also explores tonal values in a series of black and white fog photographs. His interest in process culminates in “Painting Air,” a large room-size installation from which this show takes its title.