Taking the Bait

Chris Finley's art dives below the surface

Chris Finley's artwork has always been luridly contemporary, holding a slightly cracked mirror up to the baroque excesses of modern culture. He samples from the things that touch his life, juxtaposing the intimate with the remote in an attempt to make sense of it all. With his latest installation, "Fluttersuckers," Finley sharpens his sights to take on specific targets, from the credulous superstar SpongeBob SquarePants to the cunning bottom feeders of the Bush administration.

Though he uses many media, Finley has always characterized himself as a painter rather than a sculptor, and the paintings in this show are his strongest yet. A dazzling panel titled Moths is a study in frozen motion, a swarm of frenetic lines meticulously rendered in sedate shades of brown, sage, and khaki. Though the composition appears to be resolutely abstract, its source was a photograph of nine of President Bush's present and former Cabinet members, including Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Colin Powell. Finley subjected their craggy likenesses to heavy doses of computer-assisted image manipulation, tweaking them until their faces essentially imploded. I imagine the artist cackling with satisfaction as he made Moths, finally able to control the forces that make him feel powerless.

The painting's finish is flawless, as slick and unruffled as our fearless leaders' comb-overs. Finley painstakingly built up translucent layers of acrylic paint over a period of months, achieving a surface that faintly glows. Rather than faithfully replicating the computer's composition, as he has in the past, he's begun to work more intuitively, allowing the insectoid character of these tragically powerful figures -- so fatally drawn to false sources of illumination -- to emerge directly on the canvas.

Chris Finley's Moths.
Chris Finley's Moths.

Details

Through Jan. 8

Admission is free

982-3292

www.renabranstengallery.com

Rena Bransten Gallery, 77 Geary (between Kearny and Grant), Second Floor, S.F.

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Moths and its diminutive companion piece, Ticks (which bloats and puckers Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton's fat-cat mug), exhibit remarkable confidence and maturity. The snarky adolescent prankster in Finley hasn't handed in his slingshot yet, though. A digital print hanging opposite Moths features scores of names harvested from the San Francisco phone book: Laura Boozer, Shura Bigchik, Ann Baldasseroni, Peter Mycock, and countless other victims of cruel parentage are rounded up for ridicule. Gratuitous? Yup -- but I sure snickered.

The most inscrutable work in the show is undoubtedly Up Country, a large wooden bier upon which SpongeBob lies prostrate, pinned under a swarm of sea urchins carved from golf tees, still grinning like a fool. The platform's surface is covered with pages from Nelson DeMille's Saigon-revisited saga Up Country in which every word has been compulsively circled. If there's meaning to be found here (and a host of twisted narratives do suggest themselves), it's pretty obscure.

Much of Finley's past work demanded physical participation, asking the "viewer" to scramble, jump, and head-butt his way through obstacle courses reminiscent of video games. Now the artist is approaching interactivity in a more subtle way. Straight Up, Now Tell Me is a large pole stuck, Excalibur-like, into a fake rock. The pole is wrapped in yards of thin yellow rope, over which teeters a stack of hundreds of puzzle pieces, all topped by a sphere plastered with explosive red caps (which bear an uncanny resemblance to the "sold" dots used by galleries). This is a sculpture about unrealized potential -- raw elements ripe for transformation. If you lift the rock up, a disc underneath instructs you to e-mail the artist the circumference of your head, which Finley will use to create an as-yet-undetermined sculpture.

The puzzle pieces in Straight Up ..., Finley tells me, form an underwater seascape filled with fish. "Fishing is a theme in the show," Finley says via e-mail. "Bait, Lure, Catch, Solve. Discover. Below the surface. I could go on ...." The titular "fluttersuckers" take physical form in a series of catfish crafted of shrink plastic, with moth wings where their dorsal fins should be. They're misguided hoverers with a taste for sewage, sad creatures that embody all the negative characteristics of Finley's targets. The fluttersuckers parade over one wall of the gallery, caught in a receding grid of lures crafted from wooden balls that are kissed with dabs of silver acrylic and threaded with the artist's gray hairs. Below each row are columns of digits clipped from the White Pages. The checklist teases the observer to "Solve the riddle to win a fluttersucker." I called the first few numbers on the list, hopeful that I'd connect with a clue, but abandoned hope after being greeted by busy signals and answering machines. As Finley moves from physical games to conceptual puzzles, he'll need to work a little harder to keep the viewer hooked.

One final bit of bait rounds out the show: a sentimental sculpture that has only past and future forms, but no present. Baboon, a 1969 chiseled sculpture made by Finley's father a couple of years before Chris' birth, rests quietly on the gallery floor. It's a solemn, amorphous lump of rock that sits in uneasy symmetry with Finley's faux stone. The sculpture isn't for sale, but upon request, the artist will cast it in bronze. Like Straight Up ..., this is a work about potential. "It's a piece about possibility and the unknown," Finley says. "I want to catch a viewer who is intrigued enough by the piece to make it exist in the future."

With this exhibition, Finley seems to turn away from the carnival-esque insouciance of his past work, moving toward social engagement and thoughtful satire. While the installation is bright and inviting, there's an underlying gravitas, an awareness of the anxieties that attend middle age -- the urgent whispers of unexplored ideas; remonstrations over wasted time; fist-shaking at the powers that be. In short, the artist is growing up. Luckily for us, he hasn't shaken the curiosity and humor with which he approaches the world.

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