Equal parts spiritual and psychedelic, the paintings’ vibrant palettes and kaleidoscopic patterns frame sensual compositions on a scale that merits literal use of the word epic. In this show, size matters.
During Finley’s month-long residency at Superchief, she will use the gallery as a frame for cultural engagement, offering free collage workshops and a collaboration with dancer-in-residence Dola Baroni. She’ll also get street-level with her hit Wallpaper Dumpster Project.
In between installing, Finley sat down with me to discuss trans-Atlantic art life, unconditional love, the universal divine and turning trash into art.
Sehayek: Welcome back to your old stomping grounds.
C. Finley: There’s a part of me that’s still very attracted to Los Angeles and very at home here. I had my L.A. [moment]. I lived here for 4 years when I went to CSU Long Beach for my Master’s. My mother’s whole side of the family is from here, so I’m half sweet sweet California girl… It has everything of the city but you can also remove yourself to get away from it all. You can get work done, which is why there are so many great artists here.
Sehayek: What about those two distinct cities beckons you?
C. Finley: I love New York because it’s fast and it’s furious and it’s home. There’s no time for anything, but there’s time for everything. In one night I’ll go to an art show in Chelsea, have a wild, gorgeous dinner, see a late night Cabaret show, go out dancing all night, grab a slice of pizza, go home. That’s New York to me. It’s on the edge and all at once.
And Rome is the opposite for me, it’s slow and quiet and where I really get my deeper level thinking and creation done. It’s so old, so rich with art and cultural history. I’m neighbors with Bernini and Michelangelo — it makes me lose my mind every day. It’s inspiring just to walk around; it’s inspiring to get a coffee.
Sehayek: Tell me about your upcoming show The Divine Distractions at Superchief.
C. Finley: I created this big body of work between 2009 to 2015 — since I left California until today. One painting in the show truly walks down the beginning of my new life in Italy, when I was first able to focus and be an artist. The arc of that journey is all in here.
[The paintings] are Rorschach-esque. You can get lost and meander in them, which I think good paintings get you to do. You have your ‘aha!’ moments and your punch lines, but then you have really beautiful pathways that occupy your mind.
Sehayek: How did you develop your colorful, geometric style?
C. Finley: Geometry has always been intuitive for me. I started studying traditional American patchwork quilt units and a friend of mine gave me a book on Gees Bend, quilts from the South as women’s language. [African American] women, many of them illiterate, communicated with family and friends through these encoded messages. Quilting was a way to have a conversation they weren’t supposed to be having. [Despite their oppression,] these women were able to get these little beacons out. That’s human beings for you. I fell in love with that and ran with [those aesthetics] of color and simplicity.
[My research] has also led me to mandalas, sacred geometry and infinity patterns in Islam and the Arabic world. I am also influenced by rose windows and I’ve made pilgrimages to Chartres Cathedral and other stained glass windows.
Sehayek: Is your work more feminine or feminist?
C. Finley: There are some masculine paintings in the show, some feminine paintings in the show and some androgynous paintings in the show. Although I appreciate and follow gender [politics] very closely, I really believe that it’s time that we move beyond binary thinking. It’s just old — it’s old world. And we’re all new and we’re learning and flexing our muscles in that way. This is our time. Get to it! Male, female, andro, trans, queer — love! Get to the love. That’s what this show is about.
Sehayek: What role does eroticism play in your work?
C. Finley: My older work was really erotic. It drew directly from erotic sources. This work is sexy in a different way. With these, I’m more more interested in joy and rapture and beauty. [Eroticism] is definitely there, but it’s not the most important theme. Where I’m going is beyond that.
Sehayek: A few works in this show are homage to the Italian Renaissance masters and they come with a respective dose of religiosity. Can you tell me about that?
C. Finley: To me, it’s more about unconditional love than religious themes — it’s the divine for all people through all time and space. Yes, that [iconography]—the Pietà and the Ecstasy of St. Theresa — is Christian, but they carry a universal aura… a spirit. I want this work to be for everybody, about that beyond moment — to feel that hit.
I grew up with a myriad of different [religious practices]. I’m a 4th generation Christian Scientist on my mom’s side and an ‘as needed’ Methodist on my dad’s side. In the town I lived in, my mom befriended all these Jewish women who took me in and loved me as grandparents, so I was celebrating all the Jewish holidays too. I learned how to meditate and be with all that is, and I became curious about all these religious stories that [are ultimately] about unconditional love. That’s what my life is dedicated to, art and that divine [love.]
Sehayek: You’re perhaps best known for your Wallpaper Dumpster Project. Where did that begin and how is it evolving?
C. Finley: I was working in the port of Los Angeles in a 40 ft. shipping container and I noticed how much stuff was coming in — hundreds of thousands of goods every day — and very little was going out. I saw this enormous ship go by and thought I’d like to put a baroque pattern on it and just break up the [monotony.] In the past I was a set dresser and I had accumulated a lot of wallpaper sitting around my studio for years from those shoots. Usually it was about two rolls, which you can’t really do much with. I was always looking for a place to use it. And one day I went to my friend Kyle Johnson’s studio and he had these two dumpsters and a big metal container holding it all ‘away’ and I thought, ‘Of course. I should wallpaper that — because it’s so ugly. Just like those ships.’ And I continued doing it and taking it with me wherever I travelled.
Sehayek: The project went viral in New York.
C. Finley: Everybody went crazy for it because it falls into a lot of categories: décor, art, street art, environmental activism. This project has helped people look at trash in a new way. Dumpsters are such eyesores — you stop seeing them. Wallpapering them [reveals] the spaces that we’re disregarding.
So far, I’ve done it in 14 countries. I want to do it in every country. Now, I’m starting to use the dumpsters as collection points for used clothes and recycled goods and school supplies. That’s the future of the project, working with non-profits and NGOs, people who are motivated to make those connections [to giving].
Sehayek: Based on what you know about Downtown L.A., what site-specific interactions do you hope to encounter with this project in this place?
C. Finley: There’s so much great street art here. Downtown L.A. is changing so rapidly, you can design it anyway you want to, in a way. I hope the project catches fire gets people to think about how they want to live, and what they want to see [in their communities]. This project is about empowering people to beautify their own spaces.
Sehayek: Your work interacts with different publics, from the traditional gallery to the street. What motivates that breadth? Do you have a favorite venue?
C. Finley: The more universal I go the better I like it. As I continue my practice, I want my art to get more and more available instead of the opposite. There’s a lot of exclusivity in the art world. And I love the art world. I love curating, and I like to be on the forefront of thinking, and the art world always provides that. But I need more than that. I’m an inclusive person. I want to cross categories and open up channels and connections.
The Divine Distractions opens March 21 at 7 pm at Superchief Gallery and runs through April 4.
By Marnie Sehayek
Marnie Sehayek is a Los Angeles native, where she is a creative professional by day, cyclo-punk by night and taco enthusiast always. Her second home is Tel Aviv. Between the cultural enclaves of California and Israel, she finds no shortage of creative exploit, urban adventure and natural revelry – which she photographs and writes about. Follow her on Instagram at marniewashere.