"I want to paint the air," said Impressionist painter Claude Monet in 1895. "And that is nothing short of impossible." He was drawing a contrast between the artists of his day who only wanted to replicate objects they saw and those — like himself — who wanted to capture less tangible aspects of the natural world like light and air.
In the exhibit "Painting Air," on display in the Rhode Island School of Design's Chase Center Galleries through July 29, the Brooklyn artist Spencer Finch takes on Monet's challenge while giving it his own thoroughly modern spin.
Half of the exhibit is filled with works Finch either created or reconfigured for the show. The rest is made up of pieces he found in the RISD Museum's enormous collection — much of which has spent most of its life hidden from the public.
The installation that gives the exhibit its name hangs at the far end of the gallery space. On the walls of the room are blocks of paint, in 34 colors "loosely borrowed from Monet's palette," Finch said. In the middle, 100 panes of glass hang from scaffolding, reflecting the light from a single window, the colors on the wall and — when the room is occupied — the shapes of onlookers.
The installation is all about change. The light beaming in from a window in the corner changes depending on the time of day, and trees' leaves filter the light in different ways during different seasons. Even the presence of people, whose reflections are a surprise in the midst of so much abstract light and color, alter the experience.
Other pieces also reflect natural changes in the world — "Sky (Over Franz Joseph Glacier, April 8, 2008, 10:40 a.m.)" most literally. Standing in the middle of a room, the sculpture consists of an ice machine, a chute and a pool filled with blue ink and water, mixed to match the exact shade of the sky over the titular glacier, which Finch observed on a trip to New Zealand.
As the ice melts, it drips into the pool. When the pool overflows, the water is sucked back into the ice machine and remade into ice. Thus, the shade of blue in the pool never changes — the result of what Finch jokingly called "an elaborate system for creating a blue monochrome painting."
Finch's works all show an interest in the natural world, recreating processes of change and breaking down complicated ideas into their simplest parts. The same cohesion cannot be found in the RISD Museum pieces Finch chose for the exhibit.
Some pieces do fit his theme of capturing the intangible. One portion of the room displays works of "tonalism," a style Finch describes as "the inverse of Impressionism." Rather than seeking to capture light, these prints, drawings, paintings and video seek to portray darkness.
Another set of works, fittingly grouped under the title "Odds and Ends," was chosen simply because, as small and rather random pieces in an enormous collection, the works would rarely be put on display by a serious curator.
"Because I am not a curator, I am free to put things out here because I like them and not worry about fitting them into some big idea," Finch said.
Another portion of the collection earned a spot on the wall just for amusing the artist. When Finch was going through the museum's collection, he found a wall of sternly-expressioned portraits — including one stony-faced Pomeranian. He sees storage as "the unconscious of the museum," and he said he could not resist displaying this side of the collection's psyche just as he had found it.
The connective tissue between Finch's works and the museum's comes, fittingly, from Monet. The first piece one sees upon entering the gallery is Monet's "The Basin at Argenteuil," a dreamy depiction of sailboats on a pond. On an adjacent wall leading to Finch's work is a copy of Monet's original that Finch painted — on a dare from a friend — while a student at RISD in 1988.
Finch's devil-may-care attitude towards curating may cause whiplash in the transition between his careful, cerebral works and the whimsical way the museum collection is displayed. But it also makes for a pleasant experience — both in viewing pieces that cause museum-goers to think about how they view the world and those that might not otherwise see the light of day.