Photo Gallery: Spencer Finch’s Soulful, High-Tech Cloud Art

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It would be safe to assume that Spencer Finch is the only artist who can lay claim to having beamed his brainwaves at Rigel, the star at the foot of the constellation Orion. But what makes the Brooklyn-based artist truly noteworthy is that he is at least as interested in technology – from electromagnetic waves to colorimeters, solar panels to fluorescent lights – as he is in using these tools to create art that makes his audiences feel. Indeed, some of the strongest works in My Business, With the Cloud, the artist’s solo show at Washington D.C.’s Corcoran Gallery of Art (up through January 23), do exactly that – and in such a way that blends intelligence, playfulness, and wit with an intense observation of the natural world.

Spencer Finch, Passing Cloud, (394 L Street NW, Washington, D.C., July 7, 2010), 2010, dimensions variable. Fluorescent light fixtures and lamps, filters, monofilament, and clothespins. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Nordenhake, Berlin. Photo: Denny Henry.

The show’s much-buzzed about highlight, Passing Cloud, is made from blue, purple, and gray crumpled gel, held together in part with wooden clothespins, and suspended in the museum’s atrium. The cloud recreates the light on the corner of D.C.’s Vermont and L Streets, where in the mid-1860s Walt Whitman would catch glimpses of then-President Abraham Lincoln. Although the two never formally met, “We have got so that we exchange bows, and very cordial ones,” Whitman wrote in 1863.

Those fleeting glimpses remained powerful for Whitman, and Passing Cloud effectively captures that feeling of admiration from afar, of those one-sided relationships whose power is derived, in part, from never being consummated.

Spencer Finch, Open Cloud (64 Ways of Looking at a Storm Cloud, after Constable), 2010. Fluorescent light fixtures and lamps with filters and welded aluminum structure, 192 x 156 x 156 in. Courtesy of the artist and Rhona Hoffman, Chicago. Photo: Denny Henry.

This is hardly the first time Finch has recreated the light unique to a specific time and place (he’s done the same for the night sky in Troy and Emily Dickinson’s backyard). But Passing Cloud is the first Finch “cloud” viewers can stand beneath. And that, to invoke another all-American poet, has made all the difference: gazing up into the crumpled gel, we felt moved and patriotic: that we once had poets who admired, and were inspired by, political leaders; that, as Finch points out, the quality and intensity of light is one of the few things that hasn’t changed about D.C. in the past 150 years; that the museum’s founder, William Corcoran, couldn’t possibly have imagined what would hang in his marble rotunda when he first conceived a gallery back in 1859. This burst of feeling – a sort of honest nostalgia, if there is such a thing – gave way to reflection about our current president’s kinship to Lincoln, and about the many talented artists, writers, and performers who have been inspired, in one way or another, to stump for Obama.

Spencer Finch, Taxonomy of Clouds, (detail), 2006. One of seventeen digital inkjet prints, 6 x 6 in.

The rest of the exhibition, which continued upstairs, hit a different note. These pieces presented a variety of ways of looking at clouds: two-dimensional collages of water and oxygen molecules, oil pastels of seasonal humidity, photos of clouds reflected in puddles around Brooklyn, abstracted puffs of cherry blossoms at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, a mosaic of white-out conditions on Mount Everest. Looking at them, we were reminded of what Junot Diaz said in a 2009 interview with NYU’s Deborah Landau and Slate’s Meghan O’Rourke: “You can’t fake play.” (That’s one reason, he explained, that it took him 11 years to write his Pulitzer Prize-winning Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.)

Spencer Finch, Cloud Studies, (installation view), 2010. Scotch tape on paper, 23 ¾ x 32 in. each. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Nordenhake, Berlin. Photo: Denny Henry.

Diaz is right – real play can’t be faked – and it’s that very quality that makes Finch’s Scotch-Tape “clouds” on black paper stock so right-on. This is playfulness as art at its highest, evidence of an artist who really lets himself have a good time riffing on the qualities of clouds: puffy, soft, ethereal, trailing, water-heavy bursts of a million little parts of vapor floating in the sky.

Spencer Finch, Floating Cherry Blossoms (Clouds), 2010. One of seven archival inkjet prints, 20 x 20 in. each. Courtesy of Galerie Nordenhake, Berlin.