Large, plush fingers crawl down the walls of Frankie Toan’s third-floor artspace at Meow Wolf Denver’s upcoming exhibition. The playfully bold colors, bright knuckles, and tight, uneven grouping of these oversized digits creates a sense of impending, inescapable monsterdom, like stalactites turned to flesh inside of a cave. On the other hand, if you take a step back and tilt your head upside down, it would appear as if you’re completely surrounded by a city of giant, alien hand models, their alignment so precisely designed, so faceless, and so rigid that you might feel as if you’re floating upside down above their skyline before you remember that you’re standing on your own two feet.
It’s a little unnerving, but not necessarily disturbing.
“I tend to do a lot of work relating to the body, the grotesque body, or the horrors of the body," Toan says matter-of-factly, “...but in very playful colors and textures and patterns.
Called “The Finger Dome,” the Denver-based artist’s installation is linked to another body of work begun in 2019, “Queer Gardens,” which similarly features Toan’s preferred medium of soft sculpture, as well as the motif of living imagery descending from above.
“It’s all about gardens, queer gardens, and the underside of gardens, like the leaves and the insects and all of these systems that work together,” Toan explains. “So, the imagery in the Finger Dome is these large, plush fingers that are creeping down the walls and from the ceiling. I guess, in some ways, it connects to climate change or these natural systems that are all, by necessity, in it together.”
From a preference for using recycled materials to a long list of collaborations, Frankie Toan and Meow Wolf have a lot in common, including a heavy dose of influence from the City Museum. Growing up in St. Louis, Toan credits the museum-slash-industrial playground as a guiding force in their life’s practice as an artist. However, it took a circuitous route through Chicago, Virginia, and Tennessee for Toan and Meow Wolf’s orbits to align in Denver.
Upon their arrival in the Mile High City, Toan discovered the thriving public art program, welcoming community, and cooperative environment that they were seeking to advance their burgeoning artistic career. A RedLine residency helped Toan establish themselves in the Denver art scene, along with other recent projects like their aptly-titled public art installation, “Public Body,” which was part of a public art intervention program in downtown Denver.
Soon thereafter, a nebulous connection with Meow Wolf turned into their first collaboration as “Kaleidoscape” took shape. An interactive art ride, “Kaleidoscape” resides in Denver’s Elitch Gardens and features contributions from a number of local artists, including Toan’s signature soft sculptures.
“One was a pile of geometric shapes that moved and became a creature, and then another part was this sort of wallpaper of strawberries and pineapples that turned into 3-D elements and started crawling up the wall.”
Yet, despite the obvious connections between Toan’s and Meow Wolf’s respective ethe, there was some initial skepticism about the growing art collective’s impact on the DIY art scene in Denver. Toan notes how, despite only living in the area for 5+ years, they’ve already witnessed a significant economic squeeze that has resulted in the closure of historic art cooperatives, studio space that is increasingly expensive and difficult to find, and a general lack of non-commercial spaces for experimentation.
Of course, Meow Wolf’s history with the economics of art is well-documented, but it’s understandable for any artist to question where they might be left standing after a potential art tornado blows into town and flips things upside down.
Still, Toan couldn’t help but think about the possibilities of collaborating on an immersive installation at the scale that Meow Wolf has now achieved twice over. “I was really excited for them [Meow Wolf] to come to Denver. I'm all about art in non-traditional spaces and for people being able to experience art outside of the traditional institutions, because I think that's a barrier for a lot of people seeing art. So, the concept of Meow Wolf and the ethos of art in different ways has always been super exciting to me.”
The aforementioned theme park ride, “Kaleidoscape”, introduced Meow Wolf’s presence into downtown Denver in 2019, but the local art community has been primarily anticipating the arrival of the third permanent Meow Wolf exhibition — the collective’s largest yet — since community outreach meetings began over four years ago.
“I think that the outreach sessions were so interesting because they created so much buzz and excitement from the local community. There was also definitely a fair amount of hesitation, and potentially...yeah, there was a sense of questioning Meow Wolf's intentions...I think that another thing that's maybe unique to Denver in certain ways is — like I was saying before — the art scene here is so welcoming and, in a lot of ways, non-competitive. And I think that that was a difficult thing when it came to Meow Wolf and local artists, is that I don't think artists are exactly used to competing against each other here in a way that I think the opportunity to work with Meow Wolf brought up. It was a lot of artists all applying for a limited number of options to work with them. I don't know how that would play out exactly in other cities, but I definitely have been thinking about that as specific to Denver.”
Although Frankie Toan is one of 110 local artists contributing to Meow Wolf Denver, the safety regulations required by the impact of COVID-19 has meant that this massive collaboration hasn’t really felt collaborative to them at all.
“I know that there's hundreds of people working on this, but I haven't seen those hundreds of people,” Toan notes.
However, despite the complications of working around social distancing, Toan has enjoyed the creative distance they’ve been afforded and the discovery process of working in a space that must adhere to a ton of safety regulations, and therefore restrictions on the types of materials the artists can use.
“It definitely has been kind of an ‘anything goes’ situation (conceptually speaking). I proposed pretty much the bare bones of this at the beginning of the process, and then have had the freedom to develop a lot of the imagery and stuff while we figured out what materials could actually be used, because the only material that I've used before in this installation is thread. So, everything else is new. And some of it, like using wool as stuffing, is not a stretch for me at all. I'm also making these sort of stained glass finger sculptures, and they're all made out of colored window films and fire-rated vinyl, very thin vinyl that can be sewn as fabric. They look really cool and I never would've put all of these things together, so the materials necessitated some of the design as well. I know that I have learned a ton on this project, just because of working with new materials and learning about fire code, and frankly, just planning an installation to this level...I can only imagine what that's been like for the company. I applaud their desire to want to work with so many local artists, and I imagine that it would've been a lot easier for them to not work with us, just because they have so many of the capabilities to make these things in Santa Fe. I do appreciate that they held onto that core value.”
In addition to the benefits of artistic freedom, Toan is hopeful that the Denver exhibition will continue to be a resource and opportunity for local artists and Colorado artists as parts of the installation are turned over and more artists are represented.
“I think that many of the lessons from this will only be learned over time,” they explain. “I think that Meow Wolf has taken some really great steps to try to create good relationships with the community and make their values very clear about who they're going to hire and that kind of stuff. Also, from what I do know of who's involved, the range of diversity in artists is really great.”
For Toan and Meow Wolf, all of the good intentions and community conversations rest on the upcoming exhibition’s success, but the potential for a large audience to see and experience a space with such massive ambitions is why these unique learning curves and collaborations are so necessary, both for the artist and the art collective. It’s the upside, if you will. More importantly, it’s why places like the City Museum are necessary in the creation of an artist like Frankie Toan.
“That's a great thing about being involved with Meow Wolf, for sure,” Toan says. It's like people are seeing art in a different way, and that's actually how I prefer people to see my work. You have a little bit more of a relationship to it. You're having an experience with it. It's not a white wall in a gallery. I love to make work for people to touch. I also know that, unlike going to a gallery, people aren't there for the artist, they're there for the art. I remember going to the City Museum and it was just about the creation of the space. And yeah, I'm into that."