Review of Spencer Finch: The Skies can’t keep their secret

Spencer Finch has on the wall of his studio a postcard of a watercolour by Turner. Impressed by its dynamic of figuration and abstraction, and the fluidity of the watercolour echoing the motions of the sea, Finch seems always to have had Turner in mind with his own manipulations of the elements. Taking as his starting point Turner’s A Wreck (possibly related to Longships Lighthouse, Land’s End) (1834-40), Finch has selected from the Tate collection works on paper by Turner of the Margate coast. Displayed in a dimly lit corridor before you enter the exhibition, these works are a window onto the very world that Finch employs – a world of ever-changing light.

The skies can’t keep their secret feels like the logical culmination of Turner’s singular ability to capture in a single brushstroke both the wrath and elegance of nature and Finch’s masterful sensitivity to the materials of his art and the environment in which he places them. Refracted through the manifold translucent filters which comprise Passing Cloud (After Constable) (2014) – a monumental work hanging from the ceiling in the centre of the room – the sunlight baths the room in an all-consuming glow that is as comforting as it is unpredictable. The work hovers as if arrested in mid-flight, its filters unfurling from one another with the fluidity of light and water, drawing a line from the sunlight streaming in through the windows right back to Turner.

In a curious twist away from these art historical references and the constant elements of nature, Finch has also produced Back to Kansas (2014). At first sight, this grid of coloured squares looks like a modernist wall painting, descended from Mondrian, but the blank surface barely conceals a life of its own. Each square replicates a colour from The Wizard of Oz, with the entire grid emulating the aspect ratio of the screen onto which the film was originally projected. In a further mesmerising twist, Finch has engineered it so that as daylight fades, the colours evaporate, reversing both the film’s transition from black and white and Finch’s own fascination with daylight.

A series of works on paper, Sunlight in an Empty Room (Studio Wall) (2014), use almost imperceptible splashes of watercolour to bring the light of New York into Margate. As you try to pin down the paint in flashes of sunlight, you realise that Finch is all about the certainty of discontinuity: the magic, which is guaranteed in this exhibition, is but a whim of nature.

Whether it is his studio wall in New York, the Technicolor of the golden age of cinema, the paintings of Turner or the unpredictable English weather, Finch has created an installation that simultaneously draws from a number of diverse sources while taking as its sole material a single irrepressible element. Infused with the spirit of Turner, Spencer Finch came to Margate and said “let there be light”. And there was light, and there was truly edifying art.

Spencer Finch: The skies can’t keep their secret, until 21 September, Turner Contemporary, Margate.

Daniel Barnes

1. Installation view Spencer Finch: The Skies can’t keep their secret. Photo Stephen White.