Two solos in town right now tap into tradition painting to create conceptual art that also takes on art history.
Melissa Furness, a Denver-based artist, creates constructions using her paintings. The first time I saw one of these was in a 2015 Biennial of the Americas show at the McNichols Building. Furness had stacked scores of her paintings flat on the floor so that the individual works lower down in the pile were mostly hidden from view: I didn’t get it. But after seeing Oddments at K Contemporary, and talking with Furness about what she’s doing in this solo show, I finally get what those piles were about.
The Biennial pieces were the product of a residency in Mexico City, and inspired by the trash heaps she encountered on the back streets, which contrasted with the spiffed-up areas that tourists see. The stacks of paintings were meant to be her resolution of the two, conflating fine art with trash. Furness had noticed the same phenomenon in China on a residency there, with gleaming boulevards meant to be seen by outsiders and the hidden warrens of roads where most people lived clogged with trash and litter. But she also became intrigued with scholar stones, which are small geological formations used to spark contemplation, and on yet another residency in Ireland, she discovered dolmens, stone constructions thought to be tombs that were built mostly in Europe during the Neolithic period. These dolmens are what inspired the shapes of the Oddments installations.
“I had figured out the idea,” explains Furness, “and began to think of the best ways to express it, and as I worked on it, the idea matured.” By sublimating the role of the paintings by converting them into structural components, she wants to do nothing less than turn art history upside down. “It ruins the preciousness of painting, questioning the validity of epic history of painting in the West,” she says. “For instance, so many discoveries, like the invention of oil paint, are claimed by Europe but were actually done in Asia a thousand years earlier.”
Despite this dismissive attitude to the history of painting in Europe, or maybe because of it, Furness loots the high-water marks of Old Master painting, the Renaissance and Baroque eras, to source the images she re-contextualizes in her paintings-cum-structures, taking similar subjects from different works and bringing them together in new ways. In “When Life Gives You Lemons,” near the start of the show in the first-floor gallery, the scores of lemons that cover the painting top to bottom and side to side each come from a separate source painting. Some are plump, some are desiccated, some are pristine, some have had their rind removed. They are set hard against each other, often over-lapping, and there are so many of them that you might miss the table draped with a white cloth in the mid-ground. The main panel functions as a low tabletop; stacks of smaller circular paintings form its front legs. Furness explains that many dolmens are enormous stone tables.
Most of the paintings take on figurative subjects, including the religious imagery in “The Princess and the Pea,” in which versions of an odalisque are intertwined with renditions of the Pietà. This is the most obvious sight gag in the show, but there are others hidden here and there. “There’s a sense of humor to them,” Furness points out, “so they are serious and funny at the same time.” The painting is used as a wall of a shed-like dolmen homage with appropriated holy and profane personages, including the Madonna and child, that have been duplicated from a range of period paintings.
In a funny coincidence, across town Kaitlyn Tucek is using representational imagery to likewise question the canon of Western art history. In Overlook, a solo at Leon Gallery, Tucek takes on the white-male domination of the discipline...which, if you think about it, is also what Furness is doing.
Tucek’s taking-off point is Artemisia Gentileschi, the early seventeenth-century Italian Baroque painter. Gentileschi was appreciated in her own time, and was the first woman accepted by the Accademia in Florence. But she was later forgotten until 1970, when art critic Linda Nochlin used her work as an indictment of the men’s-only art history club in her epoch-making essay, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” The answer: There were, but the men who wrote the books about art had left out brilliant artists like Gentileschi. Tucek, who came to Denver from New York, remembers being knocked out when she first saw Gentileschi’s “Esther Before Ahasuerus” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and has spent the years since researching Gentileschi and other women artists, as well as exploring the reasons that art history has been so sexist.
The paintings and drawings that Tucek has produced over the past two years for Overlook reflect her exploration of these intertwined topics. Despite her interest in Gentileschi, Tucek does not make her pieces straightforward facsimiles of the painter’s style. Instead, Tucek takes components of the pictures, including drapery, the female figure and daggers or swords, all of which were typically incorporated by Gentileschi into her allegoric and often biblical compositions.
Tucek’s intentions with this work are economically laid out in the installation at the entrance. The east wall is covered with layered drapes, with a braided cord tipped in tassels poetically looped like a tie-back on one side, reminiscent of those backdrops in Gentileschi’s works. Adjacent are two paintings, “Melancholia” and “Rasa,” both of which have surfaces not of stretched canvas, but of sewn-together pieces of fabrics, including satin, chiffon, linen and even a little velvet, extending the drapery reference from the wall to the paintings. In “Melancholia,” there’s a magpie and a partial nude female, both done in acrylic and pastel; “Rasa” is a self-portrait in which the artist is seated, a magpie in her hand. Most of the surface of “Rasa” is done in chiffon, so it’s essentially transparent, with the underlying stretcher bars drafted into service as part of the picture. Tucek’s style of rendering has a fresh, quick-sketch quality, lending the pieces an air of spontaneity even though they must have been time-consuming to make. Finally, there’s a “table” — actually the skeleton of a cabinet with its top and sides made of stretched chiffon — that would collapse with the slightest touch. Inside is a dagger, visible through the gauzy chiffon and lit by a spotlight on the floor.
The rest of the show is mostly dedicated to paintings — details of the female nude painted on satin with linen and chiffon sections. Tucek recognizes that the topic of the nude is fraught with issues related to the idea of the “male gaze,” which is often considered lascivious. But truth be told, her nudes are very erotic, and anyone who sees them without the context of Tucek's work could not possibly distinguish them from a man’s rendition. But then, that’s not the point. I felt that the addition of the magpies and fruit implied fertility; though Tucek told me that she hadn’t intended that consciously, she's the mother of two children, and the implication is that the nudes in the show are all self-portraits.
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Finally, there's an elegant little show-within-the-show: a set of angled display shelves with rows of portrait drawings of dozens of all but forgotten women artists, many of whom Tucek only discovered in doing research for this show.
Furness and Tucek are having the same conversation about the basic nature of art, but they're using different languages for the discussion.
Melissa Furness/Oddments, through September 28, K Contemporary, 1412 Wazee Street, 303-590-9800, kcontemporaryart.com.
Kaitlyn Tucek/Overlook, through October 12, Leon Gallery, 1112 East 17th Avenue, 303-832-1599, leongallery.com.