I first met Cecelia on the last evening of the Spring/Break Show,a curator-driven art fair at the Old School (a NoLIta schoolhouse turned venue.) Though we had just met, in typical New York fashion, it did not take us long as our conversation almost instantly led to our exchange of thoughts about art and artist circles. Because the night was rather short, we decided to meet again on a sunny day afternoon, the first sunny day of spring.
Cecelia Stucker is an independent curator and the director of CC: Curating & Collections, traveling back and forth between New York and Los Angeles while curating shows in the United States and Europe. Wearing several hats in the art world, she has a background in art conservation, art business, and art history. Cecelia is a hybrid or jack of all trades – but in her case, a master of all. Let us step into the world of visual art, curating, and thinking through Cecelia’s lens, where life and curating meet.
While pursuing her bachelor degree in painting conservation, Cecelia curated her very first show by chance in her newly renovated house in South Carolina. It could have been fate that this would be the first show which led Cecelia to curate numerous exhibitions in alternative spaces. Cecelia’s face brightened as she recalled the exhibition:
CS: Before I officially moved into the house, I staged an exhibition of work by my boyfriend at the time which he produced for his masters thesis. It was really interesting because the space was completely white. The only real difference between that house and the typical gallery was the floor. A typical white cube space has a floor of polished cement, but mine was all wooden floor. What was so nice about this first exhibition was the fluidity. My organizing the show came about naturally and it was the first and last time I had a seamless installation. Even the opening was casual, attracting my neighbors as well as the local art scene, everyone lounging around in folding chairs because I had yet to move in furniture.
Cecelia did not shift into the role of curator immediately as she was still trying to pursue a career in conservation. Ultimately, her initial departure from the realm of conservation came with a move towards the marketplace and her pursuit of a Masters in Art Business at Sotheby’s Insitute of Art in New York.
From our conversation at the Spring/Break show, I observed how Cecelia repeatedly emphasized her standpoint as a curator that would not step into the artist’s creativity:
CS: I do not have a desire to manipulate the creative output. The whole reason I am participating in this industry is because I am interested in the dialogue. So, for me, engaging with artists, audiences, spaces; all of these different factors of participants is the most important thing.
As a multi-faceted learner in the arts, Cecelia takes priority to form her ideas on the exhibition through conversations exchanged between artists and being exposed to works from studio to studio. Cecelia draws a distinctive line of respect for the artists’ work while holding on to her projecting her voice instead through her curatorial vision.
CS: It is more about me bringing a fresh perspective to an artist’s work, not creatively but offering intellectual or formal critiques. It is a fine balance, but for me it is mostly just focusing on the trajectory of the exhibition I organize more than trying not to step on the toes of the artist. I am in their studios all the time, but it’s talking – it’s not telling them what to do. We throw around ideas or I bring people by that might offering interesting ideas for the artists. It’s to learn about their work not to manipulate it.
Since context is paramount to Cecelia’s curatorial practice, I wondered how each country has a different impact on her curating style. Her response was surprising as it demonstrates her sensitivity to both the more academic or institutional side of the art world and the commercial.
CS: You would think it is obvious but it is true that each city, each country all have their own ways of approaching art. Success is defined differently depending on the place that you go. In New York, landing a show, yea that marks some degree of achievement, but there are so many places you can show. Selling your work, often times to the highest bidder, that is a success. Or take Paris, institutional shows and acquisition by museums and foundations or reviews by the most accede mic publications, that is the measure of success. I was recently awarded a curatorial fellowship in Lagos, Nigeria and I would imagine that in a burgeoning art economy such is growing throughout Africa, just being able to show your work is a success and selling your work an added bonus… we will see. Exhibitions definitely tend to be sensitive to more than just content of the actual exhibition space but also the city or country that they are in.
In Spring/Break show last year, Cecelia curated an exhibition “Ruination / Restoration” which solely presented works by female artists. Cecelia shared some highlights about what resonated with her.
CS: I decided on an exhibition of only female artists. Of all the studio visits I was doing, there was a larger percentage of quality art being produced by the guys I was exposed to. So I wanted to produce an incredible show of work made by young women of my generation, to demonstrate that they are producing work that is just as powerful. The theme I was presented was ‘the apocalypse.’ But instead of taking an ordinary, doomsday approach, I took the role of the female or maternal as a point of departure. So the show centered on ‘post-apocalypse’ – regeneration and new beginnings.
For Sage Grazer’s Topanga Ranch Motel, the photographer spent a day trekking the hillside in Malibu around a delipitated, cottage-like hotel that had been popular in the fifties for people to go and enjoy the beach. The cottage fell into ruin, totally abandoned and Sage executed a photo-documentary of the abandoned structures and nature’s encroachment. Cecelia suggested a nod to Roberth Smithson’s Hotel Palenque that led to the slide projection installation. Cecelia’s curatorial method merges the concept of how the ancient ruins have been studied throughout art history and emphasizes the act of artist as re-creator, reenergizing the ruins. “It was perfect for the space because the school has a very distinct tone, and using this projector from the 1980s really leant a feeling of the work growing right out of the space.”
Continuing from our discussion about female artists, I asked Cecelia about an interesting trend in depicting female images. Cecelia introduced Rachel Rossin, another artist from the Ruination / Restoration show.
Rachel Rossin’s Magnesium flashbulb constellation with a shrine to painting and time featuring a light projection. Materials: Birthday Candles, oil on canvas, plaster, magnesium bulbs, projection, flashlight. An installation from Cecelia’s curated show Ruination / Restoration.
For a walkthrough video: http://www.rachelrossin.com/3/work/springbreak-2012-ruinationrestoration/
CS: She (Rachel Rossin) created a work that was hyper-vaginal (laugh). Rachel is a good example of young female contemporary artist who is not afraid to use the body or embrace the power of her sexuality of the female. She feels so comfortable in her own skin and so, for her, it becomes a major vocabulary to experiment with and play with depictions of sensuality and strength. It is not offensive.
Here, Cecelia mentioned the artist Carroll Dunham, and his Bathers series:
CS: Some of the criticism revolving around his work is that it lacks a sensitivity, the obvious ‘male gaze’ bit. And also that it is too cartoonish. But for me, looking at his work, I see a man painting the sensations and exhilaration s of my experience as a female. Being the subject of the gaze, but enjoying it. He is able to present both male and female physicality and sexuality.
Carroll Dunham Bathers Five (The Wind), 2010-2011
When asked about the most memorable curatorial experience, Cecelia instead discussed the cultivation of professional and personal relationships with the artists she works with and admires:
CS: I am going to repeat myself now, but I got to know my favorite living artist Pierre Huyghe a couple of years ago. To admire someone’s work for five years and then get to sit down with them and get to be in their studio, that’s amazing. Through Pierre, I met so many incredibly talented established artists in a manner that was casual too. You get to sit across the dinner table from somebody like Matthew Barney or go out with Rirkrit [Tiravanija], building these relationships or talking to these people, not only about art but life. People have been so kind and giving in sharing their experiences. This is the most rewarding aspect to me. Fostering these relationships, hearing people’s stories. Again, it all comes back to dialogue. I like meeting people and talking about who they are, what they think.
As a curatorial praxis student, it is almost inevitable for me not to ask about her view on an increasing overlap between curator and artist.
CS: Again, I think it comes back to the integrity of the creative and intellectual practice, for artists or curators. Rirkrit (Tiravanijia) and Liam (Gillick) utilize the space as their canvas in a more conceptual approach. They cross over into the role of a curator because they are close with the other artists and they are working together all the time on projects. This line between the title of the curator and the artist, I think, is not always a relevant distinction. For some artists, it is part of their craft to collaborate, placing them on either side. And for curators, it only enhances your practice the more empathy you have for formal, theoretically, and production implications of the work.
As a curator with an artistic background, I think that is amazing. If you have to merge these roles to enhance your contribution to this art historical and cultural dialogue, go for it. Look at a curator like Hans Ulrich-Obrist. In ways, all of his conversation has become an art piece. He never made actual work, but his kitchen became an entity. Played an artistic role. To have participated in his gatherings and exhibitions there was to participate in a specific subset of artwork. He just uses language instead of imagery and for me I don’t think the two are always mutually exclusive. On the other hand, If you are talking about organizing works to be sold at auction or in a large commercial gallery then the roles are defined. They need to be because there are too many forces at work.
Before our time was up, I asked Cecelia to have a little word in how curating fits into her life equation.
CS: Curator is a natural thing. Collection management is in ways an extension of my curatorial practice, but it is also about my personal economy. I had been searching for something that would enhance my curating and am happy to have cultivated such a blend of skills and knowledge that allow me to run this business.
Curating is what I love, I love to meet people and know who they are, what their stories are and what they’re thinking. When all is said and done, the only thing I could do is to be a curator. To be back in the studio and also interacting with people across the art world. If I had gone to be a sales manager at a gallery which was the original plan, I would interact with collectors, and collectors, and collectors. Sales, sales, sales, sales. Which has its perks too, but the niche I have carved is definitely the best fit for me.
Cecelia gave an example in how she was drawn into becoming a curator as a profession; through having an intense debate with an artist.
CS: We were having this heated conversation, not fighting but a debate. What I loved the most was that he told me “no.” First off, it meant we had a good conversation going. Secondly, that he taught me something, he corrected me and for me that’s wonderful. That kind of friction is special, being wrong can be as good as being right. It is all about learning which is why curating is a perfect thing for me to do and I really can’t do anything else even I tried, I really can’t function doing anything else (laugh).
The excitement for the artist’s idea and thoughtful analysis from an art historian background allowed Cecelia to step closer to understand the artist’s practice and thus results into a unique curatorial narrative. Cecelia is pursuing her path as a curator through several connecting pieces from each field and creates an integrated art exhibition with the profound harmony of art and responding dialogue to the audiences.