PROVIDENCE - Marcel Duchamp. Gerhard Richter. Maybe Gabriel Orozco and Olafur Eliasson: These are the sorts of names you might expect a contemporary artist on the make to drop when listing influences and inspirations. Not too many contemporary artists, however, claim Claude Monet as an abiding influence.
To his credit, Spencer Finch does. His show, “Painting Air,’’ which opened last week at the Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, reveals a deep debt to the bearded old Impressionist, beloved by the hoards, yawned at by the eye-rolling in-crowd.
Finch, who was born in New Haven in 1962, made a copy of Monet’s “The Basin at Argenteuil’’ when he was a student at RISD in 1988 (it’s on show here a few feet from the real thing), and he has been thinking about Monet ever since.
Admittedly, there’s also a bit of Duchamp and Richter, a lot of Orozco, even more Eliasson, and a great deal of Roni Horn (who taught him at RISD) in evidence in Finch’s work. But as an influence and, what’s more, a generator of ideas, Monet trumps them all - belying Cezanne’s description of him as “only an eye, but my God, what an eye’’ and reminding us that there was an intelligence in Monet’s adamantly optical approach.
In an interview published in a brochure accompanying the show, Finch claims to see Monet’s serial work as an attempt “to capture something - a place, a moment, an impression, a light condition - and by repeatedly returning to it to get closer to its essence, while at the same time admitting the impossibility of doing so.
“That impossibility,’’ he continues “is interesting to me - the impossibility of representation, the impossibility of communication, the impossibility of making art to a certain degree.’’
Most of the works in Finch’s show - photographs, collages, installations, paintings and drawings - riff on this impossibility, and especially on the perceived absurdity of making art.
As such, they constitute an unlikely attempt at uniting the retinal art of Monet with the anti-retinal high jinks of Duchamp.
The attempt doesn’t really come off. Finch is extremely engaging in interview; less so in the work showing here, which is smart enough but curiously bloodless, like a technically brilliant actor who knows all the lines and has all the moves but fails to convince. Or like Mitt Romney.
Three works, which perfectly illustrate his attempt to synthesize Impressionism and the Duchampian absurd, give a good idea of the problem. One is called “Nine Melting Snowflakes.’’ It’s a framed piece of paper on which nine snowflakes landed and melted on the last day of 2008. They left no trace, of course. Only Finch’s archly nonchalant handwriting at the bottom of the sheet describes what we are looking at.
Similarly, two almost identical works made six minutes apart earlier that year in New Zealand are described in their titles as “Particle of Dust Floating in a Shaft of Sunlight.’’ Again, no visible trace.
Which is all well and good. But hasn’t one seen dozens of similar gestures, carried off with considerably more chutzpah, by countless predecessors going back half a century and more - from Yves Klein, who offered empty spaces in exchange for gold (calling them “Zones of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility’’), and Piero Manzoni, who sold his own breath in the form of inflated balloons, to Orozco, whose “Breath on Piano’’ is a photograph of the artist’s own breath fogging up the surface of a piano, and whose “Extension of Reflection’’ is a photograph of the ripples in a puddle of water caused by a passing bicycle?
Without adding a great deal to any of them, Finch follows these interlinking paths in other works here: “Taxonomy of Clouds,’’ for instance, is a series of 17 photographs of clouds reflected in puddles. “Thank You, Fog’’ is a series of 60 small photographs of fog encroaching on a forest.
These last, at least, are extremely beautiful. And they speak to Monet’s project of painting the same views in different light conditions (which has inspired not just Finch but literally thousands of subsequent painters and photographers). The gradual revelation of leafy detail as the fog disperses and thickens and the small format of the images combine to draw you in physically.
The series is not tremendously original. But it conjures some of the magic of early photography, with its exquisite tension between images that reveal a literal trace of reality and a conflicting sense that, because of time’s onward march, this reality is always disappearing (for which the obscuring fog becomes a metaphor).
Another work, “Walden Pond (Morning Effect, March 13, 2007),’’ is a collage of postcards of Impressionist paintings formed into the shape of Walden Pond. Finch has scrawled notes on the postcards, indicating how he has aligned colors in the reproduced paintings with actual colors he saw at the pond, made famous by Thoreau.
The idea of applying prepackaged kitsch, in the form of Impressionist postcards, to Transcendentalist mythology (which in these parts amounts to its own kind of kitsch) is brilliant, in its way. But all the scrawled notes make the work feel neurotic and fussy, with too many stray bits, like the ends of a fraying shoelace.
Another piece, channeling Horn (who loves ice, and Iceland, too) and Eliasson (who has worked wonders with fog, ice, and waterfalls) is essentially an ice-making machine. It dispenses blocks of ice into a slightly sloping funnel, where they melt and drip into a shallow pool of mesmerizing blue. The overflow is pumped back into the ice-making machine, where the process begins again.
The piece is Finch’s attempt to recall impressions of glaciers in New Zealand. The blue is transfixing. But the whole thing feels like a lot of trouble for a relatively small payoff.
Some might feel the same way about the show’s major piece, “Painting Air,’’ an installation of hanging panes of glass rotating in the air currents. Depending on their and your position at any given moment, each pane either reflects the light coming off the colored walls (greens, blues, and yellows) and through the window, or lets it through.
In a sense, it doesn’t amount to much. But the longer I spent with it, the more this uncontrolled dance between reflection and transparency beguiled me. It was like an optical version of wind chimes - a sort of sonorous futility, an ungraspable loveliness. And as such it distilled Finch’s wider themes: natural beauty, chance, the impossibility of capturing the ever shifting essence of things.
In the adjacent gallery, part two of the show, Finch has been invited to act as curator, choosing around 60 works from the museum’s remarkable permanent collection and hanging them according to themes that speak to him (or, in some cases, according to sheer whim).
The result is extremely lively. A section called “Tonalism,’’ for instance, includes unexpected works by Whistler, Julia Margaret Cameron, Robert Ryman, Bruce Nauman, and Andre Derain, as well as Georges Seurat’s unforgettable conte-crayon study of a monkey.
Another section on Op Art has works by Bridget Riley and Victor Vasarely. There are studies of clouds by Constable and William Leighton Leitch, and evocative pairings of artworks with objects, such as an abstract drawing of thin, ropy black lines on white by Willem de Kooning alongside a very loosely woven Peruvian textile.
In many ways, the selection functions as an appendix or glossary to Finch’s show. But it doesn’t force connections. One part of the display, for instance, is simply a selection of miscellaneous work that was made around 1972.
As a curator, Finch’s touch is light, modest, full of visual curiosity and glimmers of humor. As an artist, he has all these attractive qualities. He could only do with a little more oomph.
Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.