Seeing for himself

Arcadia University presents ‘Spencer Finch: As Lightning on a Landscape’

3 minute read
Are you really seeing, or just imagining? Spencer Finch’s ‘Thank You, Fog.’ (Photo by Pamela J. Forsythe.)
Are you really seeing, or just imagining? Spencer Finch’s ‘Thank You, Fog.’ (Photo by Pamela J. Forsythe.)

Spencer Finch’s creations don’t so much convey how things look as how it feels to see them. At the Grand Canyon, he shut his eyes and depicted his incandescent lids. In Vienna, he lay on Sigmund Freud’s couch and looked up: the observation resulted in a patient’s-eye view of the psychoanalyst’s ceiling. In Spencer Finch: As Lightning on a Landscape at Arcadia University, the contemporary artist transports the viewer to specific places and times through photographs, sculpture, and works on paper.

Finch inventively spotlights natural phenomena that usually receive little attention—the sun’s daily transit through the sky, clouds passing, birds’ flight paths, fog blanketing the landscape, and the fragility of human perception and recollection.

Take the guide

Finch’s most poignant work is not on view here. Trying to Remember the Color of the Sky on That September Morning is the only artwork included in the 9/11 Memorial and Museum in New York. It’s a serene wall of square tiles, each a similar but distinct shade of blue, and offers an island of psychic relief amid artifacts from that horrific day.

Appreciating the pieces at Arcadia takes more effort, but helpful guides are provided at the door. Take one: to grasp Finch’s concept, you have to understand his execution.

Stop and stare

Taking its title from a poem by W.H. Auden, Thank You, Fog (2009) consists of 60 almost-black photographs arranged in a grid. What appears at a glance to be a crop of underdeveloped pictures is actually a minute-by-minute view of a forest on an intensely misty morning. Step closer. Try to figure out where, exactly, the triangular shape of trees is first suggested. And at what point does the inky black turn to a deep green? Then wonder if you’re really seeing or just imagining, which is precisely what the artist intends.

“It’s about…understanding our own perception. It’s also about understanding how people see things differently,” Finch told Artspace magazine in 2014. “Of course the light is changing—that’s really happening——but there’s this idea of perception and not being sure if you can see the color anymore and thinking ‘It’s gone. Or is it gone?’ This idea of looking really closely at something interests me a lot.” Though Finch is speaking of Back to Kansas (2015), a work referencing the film The Wizard of Oz, also on view, his words apply equally to Fog.

Saying and meaning

“The visual art that interests me most is that which approaches the idea of poetry, that has a tight relationship and a necessary relationship between what it says and what it means,” Finch said in 2008. Auden is not his only poetic inspiration. Emily Dickinson is a palpable presence in the most resonant work here, 2018’s The Outer – from the Inner (Emily Dickinson’s bedroom, dusk). The work’s title, as well as the exhibition’s, are drawn from Dickinson’s verse.

Finch spent two days in Amherst, Massachusetts observing the way in which natural light filtered in and around the poet’s home and garden. Outer/Inner is seven photographs made over an hour as dusk settles—what Dickinson would have witnessed from her writing table as evening came on.

Outer/Inner is the most accessible work here because it reveals an elemental and universal experience, one we often don’t notice. But this beautiful series depicts more than the sun setting. The bedroom window transforms from a clear pane into a dreamy looking glass. Trees and sky melt into darkness and blend with the reflection of Dickinson’s lamp-lit sanctum. In the gallery Outer/Inner acquires another layer: the glass covering the photographs mirrors the gallery in which they hang, and Finch’s neighboring pieces.

Whether exploring uncommon views, lending visibility to things commonly overlooked, or challenging perceptions, Finch directs the gaze and sharpens the vision with art that looks simple…until you see it.

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What, When, Where

Spencer Finch: As Lightning on a Landscape. Through December 15, 2019 at Arcadia University’s Spruance Gallery, 450 South Easton Road, Glenside, PA. (215) 572-2131or

Spruance Gallery is a single-level space accessible by steps and an ADA-compliant ramp.

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