What you see is not always what you get with American artist Spencer Finch. In the past, he’s painted shifting shades of grey on Sigmund Freud’s ceiling and the stains from water leaks on his own. He once recreated, with fluorescent tubes, the shadows of clouds passing over American poet Emily Dickinson’s Massachusetts garden. He has also transposed temperature measurements and the light from his studio window into beautifully whimsical works.

Fascinated by the things we see – and might not see – Finch’s painstaking technique relies on an almost scientific level of observation. But his real interest is in the more chimerical and intangible aspects of looking. 'People always consider science to be objective, but there is really a lot of subjectivity in that line of inquiry, by which I mean the scientific method. I think that is where the poetry slips in. Science can only tell us so much, and while it helps us with practical matters, it does not really help us feel and understand what it means to be human,' Finch explains.

His new exhibition – his third at the Lisson Gallery’s London branch – is partly inspired by Dickinson. ('She’s really a genius,' he says. 'She is able to speak so deeply and humanly about big ideas through seemingly minor observations of the very circumscribed world around her.') With a feeling of awe, Finch delves into the ephemeral magic and mystery of perception, using peripheral movement and light to explore experience beyond the limited definitions of optic science. 

On show are new watercolours and pastel works on paper, alongside light boxes and an installation that place objectivity and subjectivity in parallel. Here, Finch followed a technically precise process to create his abstract visual poems, tracking the complex flight patterns of bees, recording the fog drifting over Lake Wononscopomuc, and transcribing the light as it falls at certain parts of the day on a vase of tulips. The elusive nature of human sight is at the crux of Finch’s current practice. 'I have been thinking about alternative ways of seeing, sort of beyond the visible spectrum, or beyond the conventions that normally inform our visual experience, seeing the world how others see it, or seeing through a heightened form of subjectivity.'

The exhibition is a glimpse into the artist’s thinking, ahead of the unveiling of his huge new public commission, A Cloud Index – an enormous, multicoloured glass canopy that will cover the new Paddington Crossrail station, planned to open in 2017.