Amy Finkelstein’s abstract but meaningful tableaux
It is said you cannot step into the same river twice. It could be countered that photographing it even once proves a greater challenge. The flux and onward flow of all seemingly ordered systems in the world around us do not lend themselves to the static, momentary image. On view at Elizabeth Houston Gallery in New York from December 12 to January 26, “If Only” wrestles headfirst with that conundrum, attempting to capture, as artist Amy Finkelstein puts it, “unpredictable evidence of force and of noise” as only a photograph can.
But ontological success is not really the aim. Finkelstein knows that a photograph can never truly index the complex systems driving the world around us. Instead, she prioritizes meaning-making over image-making; and like others who deal in abstraction, she knows that meaning is generated more by materials than the intention of the artist.
In her newest series, Finkelstein works with India ink on drafting film, backlighting her compositions for the camera. The imposed order of grids, lines, and color (red and yellow are a favorite) run like latticework across unruly and unknown debris, evoking the crystallization of ice or the disintegration of mulch. Her process relies purely on the natural photographic process, as all works are entirely analog and created in the darkroom without the use of post processing or editing software. Yes, Finkelstein knows that a photograph cannot reference organic or mathematical processes; but that does not stop her from using the photograph as an index, albeit a fabricated one.
As viewers, our faith in the medium as a reference to the world sets the tone for Finkelstein’s work. Her art is not self-referential in the fashion of Modernism. Rather, Finkelstein’s chromogenic prints, point to natural systems regulated by an orderly chaos or chaotic order. In short, they are about what is beyond the canvas or drafting film entirely. Their subject matter is that which no photograph can ever properly capture again. Photographs, after all, are containers; and Finkelstein’s contain her process. Her compositions reflect the imposition of order and the uncertainty of chance, traces in material substrate from which we construct our experience. In that sense, Finkelstein is as much an abstract expressionist behind the camera as is Aaron Siskind, and it is no surprise that she was awarded the Aaron Siskind Individual Photographer’s Fellowship in 2017. But Finkelstein’s philosophical concerns go beyond the abstraction of the world’s material surfaces to its underlying relations and organization.
Taking a page from Eva Hesse, Agnes Martin, or Jackie Winsor, Finkelstein is a post-minimalist, pairing grids and seriality, line and proportionality, with organic form. There is a human, hand-crafted element to her photographs that bring them beyond simple notions of essence and reducibility. Life is messy, and so is the art that contains it. Like Martin, Finkelstein is able to convey abstract emotions through form. Her abstractions are not emptied of phenomenology, but rather prioritize and provoke our experience as viewers. Like Hesse and Winsor, she eschews industrial sterility, pulling strong organic associations from what appear to be wholly ordinary materials. Finkelstein’s work is something of a feminist counterpoint to the notion that art is higher than reality. “If Only” is more than beautiful pictures or experiments in form. Rather, it is a wholehearted attempt to make work that is both of the world and affects it in turn, if only one could.
Robyn Day is a freelance art writer, photographer, and former arts critic at The ARTery at WBUR, Boston’s NPR news station; Art New England; and Boston-based blog Big Red & Shiny. She received her MFA in photography from Columbia College Chicago and her BA in philosophy from Wellesley College. Robyn manages communications at the Carl & Marilynn Thoma Art Foundation and marketing at Pivot Arts.