Daniel Finch resurrects the TV star in Pipeline

Solo show at Twin Kittens examines the psychology of the watcher

Iconoclasm is easy in the age of digital photography. It happens almost by accident: Mel Gibson loses his marbles with his ex and just like that, every amateur cell phone snapshot of Mel going apeshit ends up on E! It’s easy to forget how much reverence images commanded when almost all the ones we saw in the mass media were planned and constructed.

Daniel Finch explores that fertile territory of the televised image, the cultural icon, and the tenuous quality of viewership in Pipeline, a terse sampling of paintings at the Westside’s newest contemporary gallery, Twin Kittens.

Each of the four paintings that comprise the show depicts a central figure, always a male athlete of sorts, rendered as though seen on a television screen through bad reception. All of the distortions, doublings and halos endemic to the era of rabbit ears are retained, even celebrated, in the compositions.

Finch channels the technology of the screen itself, presenting the image as a field of overlapping dots of pure color. The figures — Evel Knievel, an inverted skateboarder, a stunt biker — are legible only from a distance, dissolving into pure abstraction up close.

Finch is borrowing from the toolkit of the late 19th-century pointillists, such as Georges Seurat, with this technique. But he’s dropped their rigid, mechanical approach in favor of a lyrical syncopation. The procession of dabs and dots pulsate across the canvas in rhythmic variations of color and size.

For all the paintings, Finch casts his eye on icons suspended permanently in TV’s flattened timescape. The artist has also taken on Bruce Lee, Tarzan and King Kong in previous work. In doing so, Finch follows in the brisk trade in icons of icons that pop art’s been in love with since Andy Warhol met Elizabeth Taylor.

But Finch isn’t a court reporter. He’s a painter, and like most painters of the last few decades, he knows that objectivity is at least in crisis and might be all but dead. The subject of his paintings isn’t so much the men on display as it is his distortions of the men on display. The grain and snow point back to the TV’s own physical circumstance, to its status of being viewed. Finch isn’t making portraits of what’s on TV, he’s making portraits of himself watching TV.

And what he’s watching is mostly guys — tough manly men. His ’70s-era images evoke the last moment in American culture when kids collectively believed in heroic public men — Lee Majors and O.J. Simpson — a belief that seems impossible in our cynical moment. That’s what makes Finch’s work less like painter Chuck Close’s monumentally brash pixilated portraits and more like German artist Thomas Ruff’s nervous, distorted photographs based on Internet porn. Like Ruff, Finch asserts that the psychology of the subject is irrelevant; it’s the psychology of whoever’s looking that counts.

Finch teaches drawing and painting at Messiah College in Harrisburg, Penn., but his artistic roots trace back to Georgia, having earned his MFA at UGA. He joins a group of Athens-based painters — notably Kathryn Refi, Zuzka Vaclavik and Charles Westfall — who are beginning to make their marks in Atlanta. And Twin Kittens is fast becoming one of the important pipelines for that talent.

Finch makes paintings that are both cruel and kind. His heroes are muscular and energetic, but they also seem tragic and faraway. With a fragile touch, Finch captures both the longing and the pity of a hero’s time passed away.