As an artist, Kirsten Furlong brings elements of her professional duties as gallery director of the Visual Arts Center at Boise State to her artwork. She and has a practical eye for conceptualizing and cataloging work. In her paintings and prints, she investigates how nature is represented; how the natural world is displayed and documented; and how that defines our understanding of it.
"I have a lifelong interest in zoos and museums," says Furlong. "I am particularly drawn to collections that can be found in small nature centers or community museums." Her work is an ongoing study of the ways in which the display of images is determined and what that means to our overall perception of those images. Her renderings of the natural world, particularly birds, are filled with commentary on the cultural context that frames the way we see them and on how we receive information.
Growing up in Milwaukee, Wis., and Omaha, Neb., Furlong realized that her own understanding of nature and animals came not from firsthand experience with them, but from representations of some sort: science books, nature magazines, zoos, museums, any manner of display. This consciousness of presenting something real in a certain preconceived way intrigued her.
"Our ideas of birds come from other places," Furlong says. "Science presents things in a certain way, and every bird guide book ever published has a preconceived notion of what they are going to show. This is different from trying to draw an animal 'from life,' and also quite different from how a contemporary artist will come to their subject, having already been informed by thousands of visual images and information about the animal."
Furlong was a member of the first class of MFA students who graduated from Boise State, earning her degree in 2000. "When I went to graduate school, I really started looking into the origins of the taxonomies that are used to describe nature," she says. "I became interested in the cultural phenomenon of both the collection and display of animals in the 19th century typical of the artist/collector/scientists of that time, as well as earlier encyclopedic collections called Wunderkammer or Cabinet of Curiosities, which included many different types of objects and narratives."
She also began investigating the medium of printmaking. "George Roberts was teaching printmaking at Boise State," says Furlong. "He was experimenting with ways that artists could use new processes of lithography. I was doing work that was putting different images together, and he suggested that I should put them together as prints." At the time, Roberts was working on his book, Polyester Plate Lithography, which built on the innovations in print making using non-toxic materials in the traditional intaglio process. Furlong became enamored with printing, and her work began to be half painting, half printmaking. Her master's thesis, "(Natural) History," explored representations of the natural world.
"I was dealing with the unnatural techniques we use to represent nature," she says. "When I am painting a bird, it is more about the history of painting and how I have understood representations of birds than it is about the actual bird." Work from her "(Natural) History" graces the cover of Roberts' book.
Furlong appreciates printmaking in a very different way than painting. "It's all mark-making as a language, and every different language has a different way of expressing things," she explains. "Painting has a history that you can't divorce yourself from. My work is referring to certain historical periods while also examining various contemporary cultural phenomenon and contexts." Furlong often makes a run of multiple prints using polyester plates or photocopy transfers, then takes them back to her studio to paint or draw on them. By working this way, she can make multiple images that are each unique. This individualization of each piece allows her to give her images maximum exposure.
"With the prints, I can reach a much larger audience," she says. "Multiple images can be showing simultaneously. My work is all hand-pulled prints, hand drawn and painted on. I can make 50 of them and really get them out there to be seen."
Her body of work thus far has resulted in several series that explore the relationship between nature and representation, and the authenticity of understanding. The "Trappings" series used found photocopy transfers of various animals juxtaposed with pen and ink drawings of the types of ornamentation used in the human world, thereby commenting on both meanings of the word. The pieces are circular, surrounded by black matting, giving the suggestion of looking through binoculars or a microscope. The imposition of human concerns onto the natural world gets an amusing treatment in Furlong's "Beautiful" series, which shows a bird with a handbag hovering over a bird with a hairstyle drawn from a contemporary fashion magazine.
Furlong's fascination with real experience vs. representation has found a new way to co-exist in her most recent series, which demonstrates a sophisticated new direction of her work. The "Drawn by Doppelganger" and "Doubles" series include a conceptual investigation into issues surrounding being an identical twin, which she is. These works were created using printmaking and drawing, and also used the chine colle process of layering. "The idea that printmaking can be multiple is mirrored in being a twin," explains Furlong. "Like a twin, images can be identical but are never exactly alike. I made a series of identical prints, then created unique drawings on each print. It was a way of mapping what my hand was going to do, the way geneticists have mapped the genetics of twins. It became an investigation into genetic vs. environmental factors; of nature vs. nurture."
"The concept behind the 'Doppelganger' series is extremely interesting and unique," says Jacque Crist, who represents Furlong at the J Crist Gallery. "Many artists find a source for their work in a personal space, which can sometimes become too personal. Kirsten has managed to keep the imagery universal."
Furlong displays her work by participating in portfolio shows, to which print artists are invited to make a certain number of prints that they then send out to each of the other artists. Recently, Furlong received the work of over 40 artists' responses to the theme "Pocahontas Meets Hello Kitty." Many of the artists find exhibition venues to display their portfolio of collected works, so the work is shown internationally. The show will be on display at the SUB Gallery at Boise State during the month of March. She also has shows lined up for 2008 at the Sun Valley Center for the Arts and with painter William Lewis at the University of Idaho in Pocatello.
As Furlong's work develops, it will be interesting to follow the prints and the pen and the paint as she establishes her own renderings of the nature of things as she sees them.