The shimmering blue something hovering in the Corcoran Gallery of Art‘s rotunda is undeniably beautiful, even ethereal. But as even its creator acknowledges, “It’s hard, without additional information, to see it as anything more than a big, blue, transparent lump.”
Brooklyn artist Spencer Finch constructed the large, translucent cloud as part of the inaugural show for “NOW at the Corcoran” series. The series invites modern artists to create work that responds to the gallery’s collection and addresses issues central to the District.
As the series’ first featured artist, Finch is a natural pick to showcase its lofty ambitions. His show, “My Business, With the Cloud,” explores the subject of clouds from a variety of perspectives, from the poetic to the meteorological, and through an impressive array of mediums, including large-scale light sculpture, oil paintings and Scotch-tape sketches. In choosing the most gossamer of objects to interpret, Finch explores the transitory beauty of life and humanity’s constant, fruitless attempts to preserve moments. This is the show’s unifying theme, seamlessly melding the legacy of Impressionism with the digital age.
In the rotunda sculpture, “Passing Cloud (394 L St. NW, Washington, D.C., July 7, 2010),” Finch attempts to capture the physical structure and emotional experience of a specific cloud, one with historical significance. It’s one moment in time: the “miraculous” moment in July 1863 when Walt Whitman watched Abraham Lincoln pass by at Vermont and L streets NW.
Everything about that intersection has, of course, been transformed in the intervening years — everything but the light. So, in July, Finch undertook a series of precise light measurements at the spot Whitman described. He used the measurements to create hundreds of theater gels in seven shades, assembling them into a cloud designed to reflect and refract the light of that fateful place and moment. The effect is stunning: The extraordinary natural light of the rotunda skylight hits the sculpture, filters through the gels and re-creates for the viewer the quality of a cloud passing over Whitman and Lincoln in 1863.
“[M]y dream viewer would feel the shift of color and be somehow affected by it,” Finch explained. “I appreciate work that is slow and complex, like Emily Dickinson‘s. Fifty percent of her poetry is incomprehensible at first, and the more you try and figure it out, the more strange and mysterious it becomes. But the more I look at it, the more I understand it. The hope is that the viewers here might return to it and get something deeper out of it.”
Finch’s works in the second gallery dissect a cloud from a more scientific perspective. The sculpture “Open Cloud (64 Ways of Looking at a Storm Cloud, after Constable), 2010,” an “inside-out version of the cloud in the rotunda,” is made of 64 neon lights colored to replicate the hues of clouds in several 19th-century paintings. Finch looked at cloud studies by J.M.W. Turner and John Constable, overlaying filters to find the right colors.
“The real beauty of the world is this elusive subject matter — the relativity of perception and the surreality of reality,” explained Finch. “Like memory and perception itself, you can’t see all 64 lights at the same time; you have to go around all of it.”
Finch conceptualizes his Impressionistic ideas with a precision developed growing up in a family of scientists. The show also features watercolors meticulously tracking and recording the color of light over several weeks, as well as whimsical cellophane-tape sketches and color-field style paintings measuring the Doppler readings inside clouds.
This quest to capture the essence of an experience using serial observation illustrates Finch’s allegiance to the scientific method. But it also finds corollaries in artists such as Monet, who repeatedly observed and painted the same subject in resistance to the development of the camera, with its promise of objective truth. Finch strives for that moment when science touches art — when, as he said, “subjectivity meets objectivity, the messy, beautiful part of life.”
» Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 17th St. NW; through Jan. 23, 2011, $10; 202-639-1700. (L’Enfant Plaza)
Written by Express contributor Jessica Roake
Photos courtesy Corcoran Gallery of Art