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Chris Finley 

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Michael Amsler

Artist wins SFMOMA award

By Apollinaire Scherr and Patrick Sullivan

EVERY COUPLE of years, an unusual procession sets out from the hallowed halls of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The head curators of painting and sculpture from Northern California's most prestigious cultural institution and a gaggle of collectors, dealers, students, and artists from the museum's Society for the Encouragement of Contemporary Art pile into buses and drive to the studios of some 30-odd Bay Area artists.

After conversations with the SECA volunteers, the museum narrows the list of artists down to seven, and the curators, without gaggle and buses, return to the studios. A few months later, three or four artists are announced as winners of the prestigious SECA Art Award. Besides providing sudden clout for people who have been doing solid and steady work for several years, the award includes a four-month show at SFMOMA.

This year, the formidable entourage came calling on Sonoma County painter, sculptor, and installation artist Chris Finley--though the team didn't make it all the way out to his actual studio, a renovated chicken barn in Sebastopol.

"They couldn't come all this way," explains the soft-spoken Finley. "It was a little bit too far. So I kind of went to them. I went to the Marin Headlands and rented a viewing space there where I was able to show slides of some work."

During the brief presentation, Finley's playful, pop-culture-inspired pieces dragged more than a few smiles out of museum representatives ("They were definitely laughing at the trampoline and things like that," Finely says, referring to some of the more unusual elements of his art). He had a mere half hour to show his work, but that proved to be enough--he won the award and will be one of the four artists whose work goes on display starting Friday, Jan. 22, in the SECA exhibit on the top floor of SFMOMA.

It's clearly a triumph for the young artist, but it's also just the latest accomplishment in a career that began with a meteoric rise. Finely, who is 27, grew up in Petaluma and attended Casa Grande High School. Scholarship in hand, he left Sonoma County to attend the acclaimed Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. After graduation, he took the art world of Southern California by storm, quickly building a red-hot reputation with six critically acclaimed shows in Los Angeles. But despite the success, it didn't take long for the City of Angels to wear thin.

"I just didn't want to live there," Finely says. "I didn't like the territory. I was so used to being out in the country and being around trees and stuff. There's just so much going on there--it's hectic everywhere. Here, I'm pretty much a hermit. I don't get interrupted at all."

Determined to concentrate on his work, Finely returned to Sonoma County in 1995 and set up shop in a 20-by-30-foot chicken barn. Now, surrounded by fields full of horses and chickens, he paints for eight hours a day, stopping when the fumes get to him. In the evening, he heads home to Penngrove to whittle and watch TV with his former high school sweetheart, who is now his wife.

The after-hours TV is as important to Finley's art as his day job. "I look at the mainstream of what is going on--the Internet, the way is on every single commercial now--and get keys to how people look at things," he says.

From those inspirations, Finley creates multipart installations as buzzy and giddy-making as a Green Day video or the Mario Brothers gamesto which his latest works refer.

Level One had viewers jumping on a trampoline to catch sight of a painting hidden behind a wall. The series of paintings in Level Two work together like nested computer files, or (for the Luddites among us) like a pop-up book, each painting expanding the image of the previous work. Level Three, made for the SECA show, is a full-on obstacle course.

Subtitled "Buzz No Thank You MMM Pizza with Steamy Crotch Hippitty Hop Head-Butt Moo," the piece leads viewers through a corridor ("kind of like in Raiders of the Lost Ark or a car wash," Finley explains), where air fresheners, along with noise boxes surgically removed from stuffed animals, hang from baskets, to a hyperactive portrait of two women sunk deep in a monstrous olive pizza. Head-butt the hippitty hop that's suspended over a steam vaporizer and in front of the women and--voila!--the painting moos.

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Chris Finley

Field trip: Finley's New Age Dom Deloise with Hikers and Smashed Yellowjackets.

That interactive component is a Finley trademark. His work draws people in and persuades them to participate: "The viewer in seeing my pieces becomes sort of like the player in a video game," he says. But how does the average gallery-goer react to this usual experience?

"Most of the time they have fun," says Finley. "The people who actually do it will be laughing. It's good-natured underneath it all. I'm not trying to mess with people or anything like that. I want it to be kind of a fun experience. The act of actually head-butting this hippitty hop in a museum is meant to be this encounter that you have to overcome and be able to let yourself do without feeling silly in front of people."

Computers may inspire Finley's work, but one of those ubiquitous little bundles of microchips also serves the artist in a more prosaic way. He renders his paintings by hand, but first he completely designs them on a computer--a Macintosh that travels with him from home to studio every day.

"I'm constantly clicking on the screen, zooming in to look at the details," Finley says. "The computer even can tell me what percentage of what pigment makes the color I'm going to paint on the painting. I can click on a certain color and it can tell me the percentage of red and blue and yellow to mix."

Some see in Finley's work a deep critique of computer technology, and the artist acknowledges that both frustration and fascination with the flaws of high-tech fuels his work. But, Finley says, he doesn't take that critique too seriously.

"I'm not really trying for some meaning or afterthought, but more a different way of experiencing art--a fun, weird, crazy experience," Finley says. "When you're done with it, then fine, you're done with it. It's still going to be in your head."

The SECA exhibit runs Friday, Jan. 22, through April 6 at SFMOMA, 151 Third St., San Francisco. Hours are 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily (except Wednesdays) and 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursdays. Admission is $4-$8; free on the first Tuesday of the month. 415/357-4000.

From the January 21-27, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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