Artists Create Trash Mountain and Mutant Cactus for 'Futureland, Arizona'

Sarah Hurwitz imagines a desert filled with mutant cactus.EXPAND
Sarah Hurwitz imagines a desert filled with mutant cactus.
Vision Gallery
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There’s a trash mountain coming to Chandler, where mutant cactuses will soon invade as well. They’re the brainchild of Daniel Funkhouser and Sarah Hurwitz, two artists skilled at making large-scale artworks using offbeat materials.

For several months, they’ve been collaborating for an exhibition called “Futureland, Arizona,” which runs from January 10 to February 15 at Vision Gallery. The show came together after Peter Bugg, an artist who curates the space and serves as the city’s visual arts coordinator, suggested they work together.

It wasn’t a hard sell. The artists have known each other for nearly a decade, since their time as members of the Eye Lounge artist collective in Roosevelt Row. They’re both fans of RuPaul’s Drag Race and have hosted viewing parties together. And they have a profound respect for each other’s work.

“She’s is one of my favorite artists,” Funkhouser says of Hurwitz. Funkhouser says he’s especially fond of her large-scale installation pieces, praising their weird materials and irreverent quality. “She likes to be playful and funny, but there’s also a personal aspect to it all, so it tugs at your heart strings but it’s also universal.”

He’s got plenty of examples to share, from a sushi conveyor belt to unconventional portraits of U.S. presidents. Then there’s the funky mushroom patch Hurwitz made for a 2011 exhibit. Funkhouser helped install them, because he’s also a preparator for Scottsdale Public Art. “There’s a braveness to everything she does,” Funkhouser says of his fellow artist.

For “Futureland, Arizona,” Hurwitz conceived a giant trash mountain that’ll serve as a selfie spot for gallery visitors. Funkhouser, who often works with laser-cut acrylic, made giant clouds that will also be part of the installation. An 8-by-20-foot mural serves as the backdrop for this part of the show. “It’s gloomy and dark, and little bit tongue-in-cheek,” Funkhouser says.

Look for several light-based pieces as well, including Funkhouser’s red and white neon take on flashy Las Vegas tourist signs. They’ve also been playing with LED lights, colorful gel filters, and other options. Light has long been a key element of Funkhouser’s work, including a public art piece shown at Practical Art back in 2016.

The Chandler exhibit has been evolving organically, during months spent sharing, comparing, and swapping ideas, designs, and materials. “We’ve been working with a loose outline, but we’ll adapt various elements once we see how it all comes together in the space,” he says.

Both artists created pieces for a mutant cactus garden, using materials that include plastic and fiberglass. They range in size from about one to six feet. Viewers will see fungal flowers as well, coming off the wall and flowing onto the ground. “It’s all pretty strange and weird,” Funkhouser says.

There’s even a field guide for the cactus, which is where Hurwitz’s talent for illustration comes in. “It explains what each cactus looks like and how it came about,” she says. One cactus, for example, grew out of an eyeglass shop. The gallery will have several copies on hand, for viewers who want to explore the fictional narratives while making their way through the space.

Bugg let the artists propose their own concept, which made it easy for Hurwitz and Funkhouser to incorporate their own passions, while exploring common elements in their work. “Peter saw similarities in our styles, including a more is more mentality,” Hurwitz says. “We both like to use bright colors and there’s a little bit of silliness to our work.”

Hurwitz suggested they make a life-size diorama of a location, and Funkhouser came up with the concept. “I just wanted to do something science fiction-y, so I approached Sarah about a future Arizona with plants and animals that had mutated over time.”

Catching up with artist Daniel Funkhouser.EXPAND
Catching up with artist Daniel Funkhouser.
Lynn Trimble

Turns out, Funkhouser is a big fan of speculative science fiction writing, including works by Kurt Vonnegut and Greg Egan. “I’m interested in science fiction that tests our ideas of who we are and what reality is,” he says. It’s an influence that’ll be evident throughout the “Futureland, Arizona” exhibition.

Even so, they’re not going for heavy-handed social commentary. “We’re not trying to be too political or anything,” Funkhouser says. “We didn’t want to make the exhibit overtly climate change-y; it’s an exaggerated idea of that.”

That doesn’t mean there’s no message in their medium. “With most of my work, I want it to be fun but I want to be sure there is some deeper reaction,” Hurwitz says. “I’m always mindful of how much trash I’m making, and there’s irony in making pretend garbage for an exhibit.”

“Futureland, Arizona.” Vision Gallery, 10 East Chicago Street, Chandler. January 10 to February 15. Artist reception: Friday, January 11, 6 to 8 p.m. Free. visiongallery.org.

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