On a blustery, grey day on the banks of the River Tay, it’s tempting to see the work of Spencer Finch as akin to those therapy lamps that simulate the sunrise, resetting the body clock, and allowing those of us depressed by the late dawn to leap out of bed, full of the joys of summer.
I don’t mean to compare Finch’s large-scale sculptural installations, delicate paintings and subtle interventions to a fancy alarm clock, but the work on show at Dundee Contemporary Arts does provide a sensory kick up the backside and, often using the simplest of means, transports the viewer to different times, places and climes, from a cloudy summer afternoon in Massachusetts to the clear skies of a winter morning in New Zealand.
The Massachusetts afternoon comes first, in the form of a light, airy installation that labours under one of Finch’s trademark descriptive titles, Sunlight In An Empty Room (Passing Cloud for Emily Dickinson, Amherst, MA, August 28, 2004).
Finch spent this day in the late poet’s backyard logging the shade cast by the clouds overhead, later converting his readings into a huge cloud-shaped mess of blue, grey and purple colour filters of the sort used by photographers. These cellophane sheets are held in place with wooden clothes pegs, and suspended from the ceiling before a blindingly bright array of fluorescent striplights of varying colour temperatures, in an attempt to recreate the quality of the New England sun. As weather simulations go, Sunlight In An Empty Room isn’t much cop, a cobbled-together, jerry-built experiment that would raise eyebrows at a school science fair. But, as the plastic cloud shifts slightly in the breeze of the building’s air-conditioning, and the yellowish lights cast soft blue shadows on the walls, it’s clear that Finch is trying to capture the simple pleasure of observing a cloud making its way across the sky - and in this he succeeds.
Next door in the large gallery, Night Sky (Over the Painted Desert, Arizona, January 11, 2004) is a constellation of softly twinkling lights hung from the ceiling. At first, it looks like a crude attempt to plot the stars, but the regular, modular construction of the light fittings and precise arrangement of differently-sized incandescent bulbs suggest the coloured balls and black sticks of chemistry lab models, a clue to the artist’s method. Finch made his skyscape by combining paints to match the black of the night, then - using a process I won’t pretend to understand - established the molecular ratio of each pigment in his mixture, and modelled the molecular structure of each pigment, with each of the 401 bulbs in the final installation representing a single atom. The sculpture is beautiful as it is, but when Finch’s process is revealed, it becomes more so, a rigorously scientific act of poetic transubstantiation, an encoded study of a single colour.
A new work, Sky (Over Franz Josef Glacier, April 8, 2008, 10:40AM) works in a similar way, but it’s leavened with a healthy dose of humour. A perfectly square pool of water, dyed bright blue to match the sky Finch observed back in April, feeds into a huge ice-making machine, which sporadically drops a load of ice-cubes on to a slipway, where they slowly melt and drip into the water below, and the process begins again. On one level, this closed system is as full of science and poetry as Night Sky, a tiny simulation of cracking glaciers matched to a minimalist liquid painting, but it’s also wonderfully silly, a great juddering Heath- Robinson contraption that wheezes into life - making visitors lost in contemplation of the deep blue pool at its base jump out of their skin.
On the wall opposite, another new piece sees Finch inspired by his first major show in Scotland to tackle a long-standing fascination with the Scottish Enlightenment. The piece 8456 Shades of Blue (After Hume) converts a thought experiment in David Hume’s 1748 paper An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding into a rough, real world demonstration, in which Finch dripped 28 colours of blue paint on to paper, dipping his brush in water after each drop, making each mark a shade lighter than the one before.
The final installation housed in two small rooms at the far end of the main gallery is an even subtler investigation of perception. In one room, five fluorescent lamps are wrapped in blue filters, in the other, the walls are clad in white paint mixed with Prussian blue pigment and lit with unfiltered lamps. In both rooms, the blue is barely there, little more than a slight cooling of the light, but, no matter how hard you strain to see a difference, Finch’s two methods produce identical results.
While 8456 Shades of Blue might have been conceived to match it’s debut showing in Scotland, all the pieces here seem very much at home in the austere rooms of the DCA. Even the sheen of the highly-polished floors - a flaw in the gallery’s design that tends to distract from the works - serve Finch well, offering a diffused reflection of Night Sky that tempers its hard, scientific edges, and allowing the faintest tint of blue light to leak out of the blue rooms at the rear.
In Glasgow, The Common Guild have mounted a companion show in Douglas Gordon’s townhouse on the edge of Kelvingrove Park dedicated to works on paper by Finch, and the pieces gathered here also suit their surroundings to a T. Finch is still concerned with colour and light, but, instead of looking outward, seeking to make new sense of the world and the way in which we perceive it, he turns his attention to intimate interior spaces. A sequence of watercolours sees Finch document the colours of light that passed before his eyes during a day spent at his studio. Another set of studies, pastels this time, capture the colour of the ceiling in Sigmund Freud’s consulting room.
A set of inkblots that wend their way up the stairwell is known as 102 Colours From My Dreams. Each one was made by Finch at the moment of waking, and together they form a diary of colours he saw in his dreams. There’s no need to interpret these self-made Rorschach tests, though, as Finch helpfully provides titles that build up into an absurd, comic monologue, a jolly litany of disordered memories and strange fictions of the artist’s sleeping life, which match each colour.
These two shows demonstrate two sides of Finch, and the separation of his work does him a favour. Had Finch’s first major solo outing in the UK been a single-gallery affair, the large-scale pieces of the Dundee exhibition would likely have overwhelmed the more delicate material of the Glasgow display, and the more intimate works on paper might well have acted as distractions from the self-contained investigations of the grand installations.
By focusing on two distinct, if allied, strands of Finch’s practice, DCA and The Common Guild in total paint a better picture of the artist’s practice than they could have done alone.
This review was first published in The Herald on Friday 21st November, 2008.