Silas Finch wants your junk: preferably if it’s a 1930s radiator valve, a turn-of-the-century nail puller, World War Two parachute, or piano hammers. From these he’ll make you “Flintlock,” a gun never made or seen before in the history of art or armament.
Finch, whose arresting new sculpture exhibition of found objects, Essence and Artifact, is on display at Hulls at 1 Whitney Avenue until March 19, calls himself not only a found object artist but also a “steampunk” artist.
However he brands himself, the works are haunting and fresh. Although they deal often with murder, explosion, and violence, they are cozy at the same time, like an old paperback stuck in the back pocket of your jeans.
Finch’s often dark, leathery, earth and history-bound works share the walls of Hulls on Whitney, one of the city’s few for-profit art galleries, with the ethereal, mythological oil paintings of Michael Shapcot; the contrast is a nice visual tonic.
Finch defines “steampunk”as an aesthetic that takes delight in taking broken machines, preferably of genuine historical vintage, and then remakes them into a contraption that functions perfectly for a completely different, read frivolous or artistic purpose.
What seems to fascinate Finch is history, both his own personal one and the nation’s. No fewer than seven of his works on display utilize skateboards.
“It’s my signature,” he says, but it’s also the canvas, as it were, for his sculpture. Finch was a skateboard champion in his 20s and after that he worked for five years managing a juvenile detention facility in Massachusetts; all the while he scavenged, collected, and assembled his art pieces.
In the exhibition at Hulls, he’s covered one skateboard with the Life magazine story of America’s first college massacre, that committed by Charles Whitman at the University of Texas in 1966. “I began it as a kind of game board,” Finch said, marking each of the dead Whitman shot with his high-powered rifle, 13 dead plus another 31 wounded. Each victim is marked by a delicate arm of a piano key. At the end of each key is the tiny magazine cameo photo of the dead. If you flick the key, it quivers with a touch of life.
Other skateboards’ themes are the terrorist attack on September 11 and the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. Finch’s recent exhibition was at Channel One, on State Street, another gallery that appreciates the skateboard as canvas.
After a stint managing a juvenile detention facility in Massachusetts, Finch came to New Haven to pursue what he called “my life-long, deep-seated fascination with the old.”
That comes, he said, in the blood, from his parents who are antique dealers. Finch haunts flea markets, his most reliable being the Redwood Flea Market in Wallingford, where he said he picked up a complete set of Life magazines for a song.
Like the magazine, that sheet music has new life in the delicately sewn sails of “Yesterday’s Girl,” Finch’s winsome galleon; and those oars are, yet again, piano keys.
Nearby is another work, “The Vessel,” another old ship, above which is a zeppelin or dirigible fashioned out of the front pages of 1940s editions of the Hartford Courant.
So the zeppelin both represents and also tells, on one side, the story of the attack on Pearl Harbor, and on the other the surrender of the Nazis. Oh, and what do these whimsical/historical vessels sit on? In one case, a surveyor’s stand, and in the other a World War Two machine gunner’s tripod.
Finch, whose previous show was at Channel One on State Street, says that the hunt for old things is often even more full of joy than the finding. “I found all the pieces of Iron Man,” he said, near the railroad tracks in Milford.” Some of those pieces consist of a 1940s catcher’s mask for a face and a gas tank as a chest. It’s the Wizard of Oz’s Tin Man, if the yellow brick road is leading to a train wreck or an apocalypse.
“There are a lot of found object artists,” said Barbara Hawes, Hull’s gallery directory, “but Silas’ workmanship is just superb, and so is his enthusiasm and freshness.”
Hawes, whose gallery supports strictly Connecticut artists, made the rounds of citywide open studios last year and found Finch. “He uses only recyclables,” she said, “and never any plastic. And,” she said, “the way he combines elements is absolutely unique.”
In addition to Life magazines, piano keys, and weapon parts, Finch also seems to be in awe of old cameras, such as the one he’s mounted on a rifle stock and packed into a case lined with the 1963 coverage of the assassination of JFK. Many of the pieces have cases, of the attach√© or violin variety.
“I love the portability of it,” he said. “And all my pieces fold right in and the elements move.”
He used the word “interactive,” but that seemed too new a piece of vocabulary for the world of Silas Finch’s objects.
Other work by Finch is currently on view in a show called the REart Exhibit, organized by the Libertine Collective in Middletown at the MAC650 Gallery, 650 Main Street, until March 28.
Finch also extends an invitation for visitors to come to his studio on Church, where, he says, he’s planning on making the zeppelin or dirigible of “The Vessel” big enough to put a projector in. “And, oh, my summer project is to take that parachute and make this immense gown 15 feet high.”
Hulls on Whitney gallery hours are Tuesday through Friday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Finch’s number: 508-292-7927