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
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
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