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Melissa Furness is somewhat of an artistic nomad. A conceptual painter and current professor of art practices and illustration at the University of Colorado Denver, Furness spent years on a creative quest that included residencies in Ireland, Poland, Beijing, and Budapest, as well as representation from galleries in New York, Seattle, Palm Springs, and Zurich. Although Denver’s K Contemporary art gallery represents Furness’ pieces today, the artist still often draws from her faraway travels in her works, which explore the tangles of history and human nature. Her newest series uses Roman imagery enmeshed in a chaotic cluster of weeds and vines.
Now, Denverites can experience Furness’ otherworldly creations at a fitting crossroads: Meow Wolf. As Convergence Station’s newest artist-in-residence, Furness unveiled her latest collection, Naturalis Grottesche, on July 6 in Convergence Station’s Galleri Gallery—a rotating exhibition space inside the C Street section of the four-story immersive venue. Furness’ series, which will be on view through September 30, also integrates the element of sound, featuring an accompaniment from composer Samuel McGuire for a special piece, Zvuky zvířat. We sat down with Furness to learn more about what local art enthusiasts can expect from the exhibit.
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Editor’s note: This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
5280: What inspired you to create Naturalis Grottesche?
Melissa Furness: The work is inspired by Nero’s Golden House, or the Domus Aurea, in Rome. I teach a study-abroad program through the University of Colorado Denver in Italy, and I also travel there a lot on my own. I had gone to an underground burial site in Rome with a tour guide and am just fascinated by ruins and the ideas of struggle. I asked the tour guide where else she recommended I visit, and she recommended the Domus Aurea. When I got there, I realized that it was the source of these other images I had seen at the Uffizi in Florence, like a wallpaper with really ornate designs and wild creatures. The artists of the Renaissance had essentially appropriated the work of the Domus Aurea and made it their own. What I’m doing with my work and the show is re-appropriating them in my own way to transform them into a contemporary conceptual work.
What are some of the main themes reflected in the pieces?
I had been thinking a lot about what we went through during the pandemic and our sense of identity and individuality. I thought about a gardener pulling out weeds, but they keep coming back. I guess it’s really individual to each person, but we all have bad habits, especially when we’re stuck alone and trying to get out of a rut. And maybe we do get out of that rut, but we fall back in when some other bad thing happens to us. Those ideas are all reflected in the pieces.
Can you tell me about the accompanying sound piece to the show?
Yes, I have a colleague at CU, Samuel McGuire, who’s in the recording arts field. We worked closely together—I gave him my art and he composed a 45-minute piece specifically made for my work. It was a lot of back and forth and collaboration to create a rich musical soundtrack that goes with these images.
When did you start working on all of these pieces?
I took a sabbatical from teaching in spring 2022, and at that time I had a residency in Wyoming and a small exhibition at K Contemporary. One of my first pieces from this show at Meow Wolf was actually shown at that exhibition at K Contemporary, but most of the works in Naturalis Grottesche were made specifically for Meow Wolf in the past year and a half. Everyone asks me how long it takes to work on each individual piece, and I would guess the larger ones take me about six months, but honestly, I don’t really keep track. It’s too much to think about.
What do you hope viewers take away from visiting your show?
I’d like them to spend time looking into the individual playful narratives in the works and find some sense of play, but also humanity. I would hope they can relate to the struggle but also the hopefulness of what we’ve all gone through in the past couple of years. Just being able to feel immersed in the environment of the space and being able to notice the little details and compare them to the larger picture is important to me.
Naturalis Grottesche is on view at Meow Wolf Convergence Station’s Galleri Gallery from July 6 through September 30. Access to the exhibit is included with an entry ticket, which can be bought online.