This essay was published in the catalogue for the 
solo exhibition 'closer than you think 2', 
Galerie le Carré, Lille, 1998.

It could be said that one of the great perennial themes of painting has been to show what is visible as an entity, precisely perhaps because what is visible can not actually be captured at a glance. The visible withdraws as much as it advances. Mick Finch's N17 series (1993-4) emphasized this theme, in its attempts to synthesize random and contradictory visual information, in the face of the impossibility of any totality. He confronted the impossible task of generalizing from repeated journeys from Senlis to Paris. These trips fragmented vision, gave it an imprecision bordering on the picturesque despite the absence of anything overtly picturesque in the outlying areas of Paris and continually pushed at the confines of a specific location. Here was the journey as a testing ground of space by time and displacement through a field of vision, as a testing ground also for that sought-after unity. In subject only, Mick Finch was consciously placing himself within a landscape tradition which is a strong if not abiding influence within British art (Reynolds, Constable, Turner, Henry Moore, Richard Long). Herein lies one of the 'justifications' for Finch's work as a painter; it entails a critical questioning, a mise en abîmenot only of tradition (painting is a practice that he learnt and teaches) but also of certain assumptions and criteria, whether aesthetically, theoretically, or ideologically based, that form and influence our ways of thinking about reality and apprehending it, and its presentation and representation.

Warding off

Finch's most recent series of paintings entitled Closer than you think, appears at first glance like an odd articulation of pop-like iconographic elements (stencils or sections of Mickey Mouse's head), motifs moving towards abstraction (camouflage) or washes of paint covering the surface which interfere with the image. Depending on the strategies employed for each work and the varying scale of the interweaving of the elements present, the stencil figure is sometimes swamped by the coloured mesh of the plane, sometimes revealed against the amorphous backdrop of camouflage. The title 'Closer than you think' suggests a proximity that is magical in that an observer does not see or suspect it - a motif to upset the eye that is so ignoble, it is hard to imagine it present, lost as it is in a trellised surface with its a priori abstraction. There is also a suggestion of fear- what type of closeness? Are we being threatened? It is as if a threat had to be warded off, avoiding any insistence on a motif that is so familiar and resonant. The guess is that the presence of the toon isn't simply a joke, a bit of sentimental kitsch, and that our easy recognition of Disney's offspring is not an accident and requires analysis. So it would seem that a critique is being made, in an allegorical and occasionally in an ironic mode, of our habits and ways of seeing.


This hypothesis has to be checked against what is today's ideological context is terms of a relatively common discourse on art. The writer Louis Calaferte's "contemporary art has as its supreme désinvolture to fragment" but we have to say that apparently those times are over. The contemporary art that is handed out for us to appreciate today has little to do with that type of art - an art of separation and sublime detachment, from neo-plasticians to abstract expressionism - that Claferete seemed to rejoice in. To listen to the most prevalent discourse, art has to do nothing other than establish strategies for approaching and relating to the public with the aim of restoring a pact and a lost link. No need here to refer to the ideology of interaction and communication, even if, as we can sense, it is a target for Finch's highly critical painting. The series closer than you think is first and foremost a critique of minimalism and that within it seems to be a first step toward the rhetoric of relationships.


At the core of this lies a suspicion concerning the Gestalt theory which Robert Morris proposed as a working method. What is there to say? That the work should offer itself up in its inarticulate, indivisible completeness; a presence in the world on a phenomenological pediment that guarantees an impersonal and public mode of perception. Anyone confronting an object made according to the psychological principles of Gestalt - immediate identification of the form shown or a totality in terms of one of its visible parts - is confronted by a number of implicit ideas. This method of approaching the onlooker, proceeds by the induction of virtualities contained in the work that need only then be named. By changing the tables slightly one could suggest that such practice has only maintains an ideological and aesthetic programme, width the rehabilitation of notions of identification and recognition. It is here moreover that the strength of Gestalt lies which, according to Morris, is a "constant, known form," that does not allow for disagreements as to interpretation. Gestalt is powerful because it prohibits any deviation of understanding.


One day, above the Eurostar tracks at Waterloo station Mick Finch came across an advertising panel which showed a huge close-up of an eye - expressive as any eye can be - of Mickey Mouse. Though only a detail, recognition of the cartoon was instantaneous. It is a process that is used often and to great effect in advertising (a fragment of the typographical arabesque of Coca Cola, the concentric circles of Lucky Strike, etc.) and it stems from Gestalt theory. Such processes have an undeniable power over our ways of seeing, subject as we are to having signs and cultural and symbolic images structure our imaginations and our relationships with reality. The Disney advertisers play heavily on clever tactics, and here their keenness to 'take us in' with an impersonal totality of desire is underlined by the slogan that reads "The magic is closer than you think" (read "Eurodisney is a just stone's throw away from Eurostar") -- as if Gestalt was written around the eyeball.


Appropriating the Mickey motif, for the past two years Finch has made a series of pictures that are a double 'mise en abîme', questioning both the iconic dimension of the cartoon and still more, formal and visual unity according to Robert Morris. In a certain way Finch puts his finger directly on the weakest part of minimalism: desire for an impersonal relationship with the public entails use of a totalitarian, even totalising method (identification of everything by one of its highly significant parts) and of an exploitation of signs of recognition (virtual pre-existence of a possible relationship). Of course Morris is not Disney and his human-scaled columns are nothing like Mickey, but a similar, dubious intention lies behind both. Dubious because it instils the idea of an undifferentiated trade in signs, objects and images, a commerce that is moreover, subordinated to a totalising visual structure which sanctions our habitual ways of seeing.


Mick Finch's current painting is thus a response to minimalism not from the point of view of a particular aesthetic (warm expressionism to counteract the supposed stylistic coldness of minimalism) but from a political and anti-ideological viewpoint. The procedures he uses in his work also take account of this viewpoint. There emerges an idea of a multiplicity working at the very heart of the picture surface, with the use of strategies of camouflage and 'interference' like an allegory of combat, a conflict between heterogeneous and contradictory elements. If we can talk of allegory here, the notion has none of its connotations of the vanities that we find in Warhol's pop art (effigies die too) or of Smithsonian entropy (metaphor of a failing system). Finch's allegorical pictures are so in terms of a critique within the surface, of procedures and of a belief in the impersonal and indivisible unity of signs and of observation.

In common with other artists since the pop art era, Mick Finch cannot be satisfied with the comforts of 'painting for painting's sake', which extols a sublime retreat from the world. His painting is painting as well as a critique of painting as well as critique of the history of painting as well as critique of the discourse on painting, with the assumption that such critiques make sense, beyond the specificities of medium, in terms of the combination of aesthetic, theoretical and ideological discourses on art. It is no small matter, since it is nothing less than a matter of being lucid. 

Tristan Trémeau

Translated by Bridget Strevens