BY Mark Godfrey in Reviews | 05 MAY 01
Featured in
Issue 59

Spencer Finch

Postmasters, New York, USA

BY Mark Godfrey in Reviews | 05 MAY 01

Above the centre of the first of two rooms in the gallery Spencer Finch rigged a long, narrow, open-topped tube, which tilted gently down from the ceiling. Every morning he filled it with a line of fresh apples. Every five minutes a bar released the apple at the front of the line so it dropped onto the green astroturf square below and bounced off in a random direction. There were just enough apples in the tube to last the day.

Composition in Red and Green (all works 2000) is at once a demonstration and a representation of gravity, combining references to the Newton story, to sculptural investigations of it (such as Barry Le Va's scatter pieces) and (more obliquely) to the biblical Fall. While the title also recalls the 'compositions' of 1920s abstraction, the tradition of still life (particularly Cézanne's paintings of similarly hued fruit) is also alluded to, and disrupted. The admirable economy of the work enables these allusions to be invoked simultaneously, but its greatest achievement is how it structures the viewer's experience. As you look up, you feel the tantalizing sensation of not quite knowing when the apple will drop. As you become aware of the absurdity of this wait, the work prompts a more general self-consciousness about what it is to gaze at art objects, awaiting epiphanies.

Finch's concern with reference, representation and spectatorship was in evidence throughout this show. In the second room another ceiling construction consisted of light bulbs joined to each other in structures replicating chemical bonds. Titled Blue (Sky over Los Alamos, New Mexico, 5/5/00, Morning Effect), it included one unit of ultramarine, 19 of titanium oxide and ten of cobalt. By combining the three chemicals, a pigment could be made to match the colour of the polluted sky Finch witnessed at this former nuclear test site. Though a subjective rendering (Finch's blue would be described differently by someone else), as a representation of a pigment to match his blue, the work was scientifically accurate. At the same time, it was utterly removed from its referent - spectators breathing the (comparatively) safe New York air, were looking at a mobile of white bulbs lighting a gallery space in Chelsea. If the piece obscured a simple view of representation, it illuminated the fact that traditional ways of thinking about representation as resemblance are now obsolete.

Nonetheless, Finch is interested in the way viewers structure experiences around the old abstraction/representation duality. Water Stain over My Bed (4 Views) consists of four pencil drawings, which are coloured in with brown watercolour. The drawings match each other as much as the process permits, but each is orientated differently by 90 degrees and accompanied by a text - 'map of Cuba', 'kitty w'penis', 'dancing bear', 'flying dragon'. Playing spectator, the artist has pre-empted the latter's impulse to name an abstract shape, which of course is not abstract at all, but a copy of a leak mark. Forecast of Jet Stream over North America (10.5 Days Ahead), meanwhile, works differently. The undulating watercolour bands reference Brice Marden's recent paintings, which have been read as abstractions of natural phenomena. Finch's drawing isn't loosely transposed from nature, though, but is a mapping of meteorological wind patterns over the continent. This conceptual difference accounts for its formal distinction from a Marden work: Finch's jerky lines record the hesitant process of transcribing information.

Like other works, Forecast also involved a comical attempt to visualise the ethereal. Beside it was the delightful Index of Wind. A seemingly blank white sheet, it only gradually became apparent that the paper was, in fact, covered with an alphabetical list, written in white pastel, of the names of the world's winds. Rather than holding a piece of paper in a storm to be imprinted with the wind itself (think of Yves Klein's Vent du Voyage, 1960), Finch made this work through a process of anthropological study, collection and transcription.This kind of displacement of one activity for another echoed a synaesthetic exchange operating in Smell at 35,000 Feet (Somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean, 5/18/00). The drawing of faint hazy concentric circles of orange and yellow was strangely convincing in its visualisation of an aroma. If there is scent in this indeterminate location, who is there to smell it anyway?

These thoughts were suddenly interrupted by a thud from the next room, and with that, the final element of the Composition was sensed. Though the work wasn't visible, something other than its sound let you know it was there ... the sweet scent of apples.

Mark Godfrey is a curator and art historian based in London, UK. He recently co-edited The Soul of a Nation Reader (2021) with Allie Biswas, and co-curated ‘Laura Owens and Vincent van Gogh’ at the Fondation Vincent van Gogh in Arles, France.