Cortney Lane Stell: Blowing up the art gallery

As the curator heads off for a showcase of Colorado artists in Venice, she chats about her working philosophy and reveals her plan to exhibit art in automobiles.

Cortney Lane Stell at the opening for Blow Up, a solo exhibition at RedLine of Black Cube Artist Fellow, Chad Person

I’ve known Cortney Lane Stell, an independent curator, for a few years now. We first met at the Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design where I studied sculpture and she ran the Philip J. Steele Gallery.  Now, she’s executive director and chief curator of Black Cube, an experimental, roaming contemporary art museum producing challenging and unexpected pop-up exhibitions in Denver, San Antonio and soon Venice, Italy, during the Biennale and Los Angeles later this year.
Though vastly different in content and unique in location, the artworks produced by Black Cube have conceptual roots in common, with Cortney is gunning to raise the needle on the careers of artists. The exhibitions and artworks the public sees result from a carefully crafted, intentional course of choices all made to present artwork truthfully and in its best light. I’m curious about this behind-the-scenes process, so we sat down at her kitchen table among two fuzzy labradoodles and a sleepy, feline prowler (named Clarke, after artist Clark Richert’), to chat about her curatorial practice, interdisciplinary approach and developing long-standing relationships with artists.


The Black Cube shipping container on the move near the Colorado State Capital in 2016.

JE: Many curators focus on art history for their masters or PhD.  Alternatively, you chose philosophy and communications as a non-traditional approach.
CS: I fundamentally believe that art is about communication and how we relate to, reflect, and envision the world around us; understanding those underlying perspectives is important. Most curators come from major metropolitan cities and have a certain class background (which provides social connections), though there are many exceptions to this statement, including myself.  I charted a different course than the traditional art history PhD path. I also chose not to pursue the newer, perhaps more common, path of MA in curatorial practice. I’m interested in critical theory and situating art through that lens. Instead I sought a PhD in continental philosophy and media communication from a nontraditional school based out of Switzerland: the European Graduate School (EGS).
This educational environment is anarchistic in some senses and it’s also a space where you spend time with celebrity philosophers in small class sizes. It’s also super important to mention that the professors teach newer works and often bring concepts to class that they are working through. Given all of this, you can observe their process of ideation. I also partly chose this school because I was working at a small private college at the time and saw a lot of b.s. in the higher education industry, which was totally contrary to the critical, soul-quenching education experience I was after.

JE: I associate a curator’s role with that of a protector, facilitator, and shepherd of sorts for artists and their artworks. The role of a curator evolved from keeper of a permanent collection of artworks and seems to be continuously shifting in the present day. How do you define your role as a curator?
CS: My curatorial philosophy is based on the mash up of two ideas; first being the origin of the term curator and the second being the track of curating new works with living artists initiated by the Swiss curator Harald Szeemann.
Let me unpack those statements a bit. The origin of the term curator — curare  — is a Latin word, which means to care-take or to be a guardian of something. The first curators were caretakers of collections. Szeemann organized an influential 1969 exhibition called “When Attitudes Become Form” that remains an important root for my practice. In this exhibition, he invited artists into the museum to interact with the space and also focused on work that elevated artistic process over final product, essentially turning the Kunstahlle Bern into a giant artist’s studio. This is different than “curating as a process of simply an educated selection process.” I’m interested in the production of the artwork, the artist and their voice, and not just making selections of existing work from artists’ archives.
I also run a kunsthalle-style organization, Black Cube, which produces temporary exhibitions. I am also currently not bound to a permanent space, which allows my entire (site-relational) exhibition-making practice to focus on decisions that take root in thinking about what works best for the artists and their work.

image of Lawrence Weiner – When Attitudes Become Form, curated by Harald Szeemann, Kunsthalle Bern, 1969.

JE: I’ve heard you speak about the idea of artist as subject. Can you expand upon this concept? Where did this start?
CS: This approach emerged from many life experiences.  I think it started from the experience of jurying student exhibitions (both grad and undergrad), participating in critiques, and also from the practice of working with artists serially (meaning time and time again throughout their career).
I try to think about the artist holistically in relation to selecting work. Having a deep connection to the artist has allowed me to understand their perspective and also empowers me to help tease out ideas or frame work in specific ways. When in critique or jurying some student shows, I have been asked to read the work cold (without the artist’s statement or explanation). Though I see the importance of this in an educational setting, I think “reading” the artwork of living artists without the context of the maker’s viewpoint devalues artwork and the field at large.
I’m also interested in changing the power structure of the field. Curating (in its current formation) is a power role, and I use my authority in exhibition-making, but I use the power more as a door opener than a closer, meaning the power structure is sometimes important to getting sites procured, receiving grants, or elevating the artist. I keep my practice in check by valuing the importance of showing the work accurately, in its best light, and with care to the sociocultural framework that the work was produced within. To properly frame an artist’s work, it is important to understand the artist in both their most vulnerable and empowered positions and to use that knowledge to help frame it for the public consumption.
JE: Why do you choose to work with the same artists over and over again?
CS: For many of the same reasons I mentioned before; the care-taking aspect comes into play in an interesting way when you develop a bond with an artist over time. It is important for me to understand an artist’s world views and ideologies and this doesn’t come quickly and sometimes changes. I start from knowing the artist’s relationship to their own work and can weed out the strong artists by knowing the person first and the objects second.

Cortney Lane Stell flanked by Rene Godinez Pozas and Carlos Lara of SANGREE along with Black Cube intern, Marcos Cousins

JE: I see loyalty and a fierce devotion to nurturing the careers of artists.
CS: Well, thanks; I’m flattered. Working with artists again and again helps curatorial practice because you understand the depth of an artists practice: how they change and grow and how ideas mutate over time. Rather than loyalty, I think of it as advocacy for giving artists a voice. The social structure of the American art system has lots of room for improvement – particularly with artists’ rights for fair and ethical compensation for their physical and intellectual labor. I also feel that the art education system needs an overhaul, or diversification. Capitalism is the soup that we’re all swimming in, and I think artists are taken advantage of in that context… institutions often ask for work in trade for exposure and that’s just not right.

JE: Do you feel a sense of responsibility to the artists that you choose to work with?
CS: Absolutely! The kind of exhibitions I make require a lot of relationship building and trust, learning when to step back and when to push. Producing new work is a special space that I’m honored to be a part of. I feel there is a prevailing culture of fear nowadays, one that pits people against each other. This focus on separation can cull out feelings of opposition or otherness. I’m interested in the politics of empathy and a society organizing around sensitivity towards collective spaces, collective communication, and exchange. What if society was politically, financially, or otherwise organized around empathy? I think we all have a responsibility to each other.

JE: What obstacles are at the core of your endeavors as a curator?
CS: It’s always about walking the line in my practice. For example, finding the line between criticality and support. Challenging artists whilst nurturing them.  Supporting artwork that deals with sensitive subjects while remaining accessible to a wide audience.  I guess I don’t really see obstacles, but I am always careful of how my decisions can direct the project.

Cortney Lane Stell and Black Cube Founder, Laura Merage

JE: Can you tell me about your unfinished or unrealized projects?
CS: I want to produce more experimental projects.  Earlier in my career I organized a few exhibitions in refrigerators and under highways.  The experience of working with professional artists on an experimental level can be super rewarding.  It can help generate new work. For that reason, I’m interested in author, Hakim Bey’s idea of temporary autonomous zones. These “zones” are  spaces that elude formal structures, they are alternative to traditional models of revolution, and focus on creating free, ephemeral enclaves of autonomy in the here-and-now. TAZ zones can be found in elevators, wherever… and I like the idea of producing experimental exhibitions that invoke this sense of liberation and embrace the present.
I think this sort of curatorial unfamiliar territory could temporarily offer opportunities for artists to think of their practice anew (i.e., offering an alternative to the stables of stylized artists we have seen for decades).
I’m excited for a series of short experimental exhibitions that I am working on for Denver called Drive-In.  Essentially they will be various permutations of exhibitions in vehicles. I’m interested in the conversation about art and class, car and identity, etc.
I also always wanted to send an artist to the moon. (Grab a drink with me and I’ll elaborate.)

You don’t need to board a spaceship to see the next Black Cube exhibit, but you do need to hop a plane. Colorado-based artists and Black Cube fellows Laura Shill and Joel Swanson are presenting new bodies of work at Personal Structures, a satellite exhibition at Palazzo Bembo coinciding with the 57th Venice Biennale. It’s a big deal. On display until late November 2017, you have plenty of time to get yourself to Italy and see what Cortney, Laura and Joel have been cooking up.


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