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Bean Finneran: Recurrence
January 11–April 7, 2002

Bean Finneran

Red Cell, 1997
earthenware, glaze, acrylic stain
8 x 16 x 25 inches
courtesy of the artist and Braunstein/Quay Gallery, San Francisco, CA

Bean Finneran: Between Art and Nature

I. "Watch two bits of foam floating side by side at the bottom of a waterfall. What can you guess about how close they were at the top? Nothing. As far as standard physics is concerned, God might as well have taken all those water molecules under the table and shuffled them personally." (1)

Though essentially abstract, Bean Finneran's sculpture often makes us think of real things: haystacks, windblown grasses, coral branches, or even the gracefully chaotic tangle of debris dumped by waves on a beach when the tide recedes. Such allusions seem natural in the work of an artist who has spent much of her life at the water's edge. After an adolescence spent in Florida, Finneran moved to northern California in her mid-twenties. For more than two decades, she has lived and worked in a tidal marsh only a few miles from San Francisco. Her home and studio are part of a line of buildings that punctuate a picturesque boardwalk meandering through a sea of grass and water. From the deck around her studio, a view of austere yet spectacular beauty can be seen in every direction, as if from the deck of a ship.

Clearly, this environment has been part of Finneran's inspiration. For the past several years, she has been experimenting with simple sculptural shapes constructed out of thousands of curved rods of fired clay. No glue or fasteners connect the slender arcs, each about the size and thickness of a pencil, which she uses to compose the cones, nests, circles, and lines in her installations. Essentially, only gravity holds the twiglike forms in place, in the same kind of random yet orderly patterns as the reeds and sedge that she sees every day out of her studio windows.

Part of what makes this work successful, however, is the way in which it reflects nature without imitating it. Just as all snowflakes are said to be different from one another, each hand-rolled cylinder of clay is as unique as a fingerprint. These "curves," as Finneran calls them, embody repetition, and thus the passage of time. The patient hours of work required to form, fire, and color the components that make up the larger pieces are evoked by her simple titles: 6,000 curves, 5,000 curves, 10,000 curves.

Finneran's evocation of time and labor connects her work to that of an earlier generation of artists, specifically Yayoi Kusama and Post-Minimalists Eva Hesse and Jackie Winsor. In sculpture by all three of these women, a profusion of small elements constructs or fills a large shape or environment. Installation artist Ann Hamilton has explored this approach as well, using both organic materials such as teeth, horsehair, or beeswax, and manmade elements such as pennies by the thousands or slugs of lead type.

This kind of labor-intensive, accumulative sculpture is not limited by gender. Belgian conceptualist Leo Copers, for example, has built immense vessel forms out of fragments of glass or artificial flowers. In a sense, what Finneran and these other artists are connecting to is the religious philosopher St. Augustine's notion of work as a form of prayer - a kind of faith in the value of artmaking. In a society where time is money, Finneran's decision to make each component by hand intensifies not only her relationship to the work, but the viewer's as well.

II. [Some people] think I use chance as a way of giving up making choices. But my choices consist in choosing what questions to ask. (2)

In Recurrence, her project for the Kemper Museum, Finneran has built a series of seven rings of varying sizes. Their scale and placement create dynamic relationships among the pieces and with the space itself. In some of the rings, the tips of each of the curves have been dipped in a clear glaze before firing. As a consequence, these shiny ends reflect light, rather than absorbing it, creating tiny highlights that shift and sparkle as viewers move around the gallery. Most importantly, each ring is composed of curves of the same color, with the result that the visual impact and presence of each circle is affected by both its size and hue. The largest, which is white, incorporates some 16,000 rolls of clay, while the smallest, a soft shade of green, consists of only a few hundred.

The colors selected - warm tones of red, yellow, and orange; cooler hues of blue, green, violet, and pure white - may seem at first to be arbitrary. A visit to Finneran's studio, however, suggests otherwise. Blossoms in small vases dot the tables around the room: yellow, orange, and red nasturtiums; blue cornflowers; rose-colored mallow. Flowerpots covering much of the deck outside are filled from spring to late fall with a succession of blooms, from exotic tulips to homely lobelia. Clearly, just as the shape and form of her pieces are thoughtful abstractions from nature, the vivid tones she uses are far from random. Yet there is no explicit relationship between each piece and its color. And, when an installation is temporary - as the majority of such pieces are - Finneran will recycle the same ceramic elements for another sculpture, possibly of an entirely different shape or dimension.

Similarly, the gracefully disheveled appearance of the surface of each ring belies the combination of randomness and deliberation with which they are made. Finneran begins by placing a layer of pieces on the floor, crossing them to create a kind of gridlike foundation. She then continues adding curves in a gradual process of accretion, dropping handfuls of them into the open spaces in the grid until they catch and intertwine, forming a stable mass. Obviously, the final configuration of the piece is both accidental and intentional. Like composer John Cage, Finneran exercises aesthetic decision making by allowing events to happen in the course of making the work. Those events then take an active role in the work's formation.

Recurrence captures our imaginations without taking them hostage. The ring is a potent symbol, signifying the endless cycle of life, death, and rebirth. At the same time, it is just a pleasing form: a line, the ends of which have been brought together until they touch; an elegant void.
Finneran has made a place for her work between craft and nature by using labor-intensive, handmade elements and arranging them in ways that evoke an astonishing variety of "natural" associations. Images as diverse as coral reefs, fairy rings of mushroom spores, crop circles, or even some kind of exotic bacilli seen under an electron microscope might come to mind walking through the gallery. In the end, however, these graceful rings are uniquely themselves.

Maria F. Porges
Independent Critic

1. James Gleick, Chaos: Making a New Science (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1997), p. 8.

2. John Cage, interviewed by Robin White, quoted in View (Oakland, CA: Crown Point Press, 1979), p. 6.