Sally Finch presented the 23 abstract drawings and paintings (2009–11) in her exhibition “Weather Studies” just as seasonal rains began to fall in the Northwest. But according to the titles of these works (from 7 to 24 inches square), the weather in question raged elsewhere—in Africa, India, Greenland, Japan. Decades of precipitation and changing temperatures in Calcutta or Sendai took visual form in hand-drawn grids as Finch transcribed monthly averages in tiny, penciled numerals and dots of acrylic paint. In Weather Study 2, Sudan, variegated horizontal bands of green, blue, purple or yellow dots suggest periodic monsoons or drought. Weather Study 8, Juba reports statistics over 36 months beginning in January 1961, with graphite notations as well as clusters of dots in colors ranging from yellow-orange to violet-red. Neatly arrayed across the months, the dot clusters look floral-like, conjuring decorative handiwork on tea towels or quilts.
If the handmade paper’s deckled edges undercut the regularity of the grids and the precision one expects of scientific data, other anomalies also appear. “No data available” is inscribed across several registers in Weather Study 2, and elsewhere, colors occasionally correspond to the month rather than the weather. Though compensated by the drawings’ delicate charm, viewers are refused any satisfying access to empirical truth. One has to admit the often elliptical quality of statistics and the inevitably partial nature of our grasp of the global events such information strives to represent.
Finch’s fascination with accumulated data dovetails with her day job in inventory control at Oregon Health Sciences University. Painstaking record-keeping also informed her last project, “Mistakes Were Made” (2008), where data consisted of names, ages and death dates of thousands of war casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan. How does one comprehend catastrophes abstracted in statistics, Finch seemed to ask, and then immersed herself in the daunting process of writing down names and numbers of the dead.
“Weather Studies” began with a similar meditation on disaster, this time the war over diminishing resources in Darfur (thus the drawings subtitled Sudan, Juba, Al Fasher) and worry over what may ensue at other stressed sites as global warming takes its toll—in India, for example, with its crowded population, and Greenland, with its melting glaciers. Consulting tables published by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Finch processed endless columns of numbers. Her choice of the grid as an organizing structure, rather than, say, sparklines or bar or slope graphs, aligns her with a familiar artistic tradition; the contemplative lattices of Agnes Martin come readily to mind. Distinctive is Finch’s use of the grid to order difficult, politically charged material realities. Might its unconscious function, then, be protective, distancing, even apotropaic? As we constantly grapple with torrents of information, the grid may become a coping device to contain and control the otherwise emotionally overwhelming news of the day.
Photo: Sally Finch: Weather Study 2, Sudan, 2010, graphite and acrylic on handmade paper, 14 inches square; at Froelick.