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Meet Laurie Britton Newell

On Curating Outside of the White Cube

Meet Laurie Britton Newell
Laurie Britton Newell (Photo by Natalie Campos)

Cortney Lane Stell: You are rather new to Colorado. Most recently you have come from a position at the V&A Museum in London. What is your perception of the Colorado art scene? How is it similar and/or different?

Laurie Britton Newell: Colorado is very big, and everything is so spread out, when you first arrive here, it is difficult to find out who is doing what. There is a lot of interesting work happening it is just quite challenging to unearth it. There are less of the threads that bring art together here than in a city like London, where there are an infinite number of places, publications and networks to tap into both as an artist and a person interested in engaging with art.

The other central difference is landscape looms so large here. As an artist working in Colorado you have to decide where you stand in relation to these dominating mountains. I have come across a lot of interesting responses to the great American West. It appears to be both nurturing and stifling to some. In London, artists are generally more concerned with working out their position in relation to the built landscape and the manmade world.

On a personal level it has taken my eyes quite a while to adjust to the scale of landscape here and not be overwhelmed by it!

CLS: Can you describe the site for the pop up exhibition you are curating for Black Cube?

LBN: Gold Hill is a historic mining town that was founded in 1859. It is about 10 miles from Boulder, heading up into the mountains, Northwest of Boulder. As you drive up Sunshine Canyon for the first 6 miles you are driving on pavement and you get great views looking down on Boulder, and on a clear day Denver too. As you climb further you hit a dirt road and start to see views of the Continental divide. Gold Hill is situated at 8300ft. Some times you drive up into the clouds and pass through them and find Gold Hill waiting for you in the sunshine. My daughter often describes it as “going home to the clouds”. The small town is made up of wooden structures, mostly residential cabins, but it also has an inn, a lodge, a general store, a museum and a school. The town is surrounded by forests of Pine and Aspen and the colors you a see in the summer are mixture of brown, black, green and yellow and then in the winter lots of white, of course.

When I moved to Gold Hill in 2014 I was deeply struck by the little town, perched above the city and nestled in this striking landscape. I was excited by the dilapidated buildings, the authenticity of them, American vernacular architecture. Gold Hill feels simultaneously like a fictional place, but it is also very real and vibrant.

CLS: Why is Gold Hill ripe for an art project such as this?

LBN: History lies very close to the surface in Gold Hill. The marks of mining are still very visible and the shift over from being a mining community to being a tourist destination in the early 19th Century is also visible in the buildings that remain. I think as I come from a background working as a curator of contemporary art and design in a historic museum, the V&A is a large Victorian palace, my mind quite naturally jumped to imaging how to situate contemporary artworks in a historic mining town. I think it is very enriching to pair the old and new side by side, it can offer new ways of looking at both the past and the present. I am excited to see what visitors will make of the Gold Hill Art Project.

CLS: Gold Hill is a historic mining town and like most mining towns drew independent thinkers and entrepreneurs. Now Gold Hill, in its post-mining phase, has a different kind of community but I imagine that this community is still strongly independent. Can you explain the Gold Hill community, who lives here and why?

LBN: Gold Hill is a very interesting in mix, approximately 230 people live here all year around and we are joined by some more people in the summer months. You are correct, it is a town of strong independent minds! There are a lot of retired academics; cloud scientists, engineers and teachers, and there is quite a concentration of PHD’s up here. This older generation is also made up of alternative thinkers who arrived in the late 60’s and early 70’s and who never left. The younger generations are made up of a combination of those who were raised in Gold Hill, and who perhaps left and returned to raise their families, and new comers like myself who are drawn to mountain life and the wonderful Gold Hill Elementary School. Gold Hill is a great place to be a child, you get to grown up slowly and mess about outdoors a lot. The other most prominent group in the community are the pets. Dogs roam free and have very large personalities. There used to be a town donkey called Twinkles who I have heard used to wonder from different peoples houses depending on who fed her the best leftovers.

CLS: You are working with three artist fellows for this pop up exhibition. Is it like putting together an institutional group show or is it different because of the site specificity?

LBN: There are some parallels, there is a rhythm in the lead up to putting on any group exhibition that has similar components such as; pitching the initial idea, researching artists, developing the artwork, promoting the project, working out the practical logistics of how to install it, deciding how it will documented etc… What has been different working on the Gold Hill Art Project is that at the start I knew that it would take place in Gold Hill just not where exactly. That was decided through a combination of the artists making site visits and choosing places they wanted to work with and conversations with local residents and the Gold Hill Town Meeting about places that could be used. It was not a known quantity to start off with, in the same way a 300ft gallery space is for example... in fact the final decisions about exactly where to situate projects happened pretty late the process. The artists had to devise of a project that fit conceptually anywhere in Gold Hill and then it was a back and forth deciding on final placement and how it would interact with the site.

A historic mining town is not a neutral backdrop for a piece of contemporary art.

In addition to the visual differences between an outdoor location and a gallery space there are all the practical issues such as fierce winds, harsh fading sunlight, bears and wild beasts! It is a really unique environment to place artwork in, so it has been important for the artists to get to know Gold Hill and it’s people in order to produce something that is both an exciting new insertion into the site but also to create something that is not too incongruous or out of place. It is a careful balance.

CLS: Can you introduce us the artworks that the fellows are producing?

LBN: The Gold Hill Art Project features three Black Cube artist fellows: Molly Berger, Jennifer Ling Datchuk and Eric Stewart.

Molly’s installation has two parts to it. For the first, she has created a series of porcelain and gold sculptures inspired by mining tools and objects from domestic life, dating from the town’s mining boom in the late 19th Century. These fragile tools will be installed on the outside of a historic cabin will bring to mind things like gold pans, lamps and rug beaters. The act of taking a useful object and displaying it on a wall is a familiar sight in Gold Hill. It changes the status of the object from functional to commemorative. The second part of the installation is situated in the cabins’ horse stable and here Molly is exhibiting a collection of statements stitched into doormats that she has taken from conversations she had with different residents who have long standing connections to Gold Hill. She was moved by the way in which she was welcomed into residents homes and that they shared intimate life events with her. Removed from longer stories, these phrases go to heart of an individual’s relationship to this place.

Jennifer’s installation is positioned near the site where a Chinese laundry and bathhouse is reported to have stood in the late 19th Century. For this project Jennifer researched the Chinese involvement in the Gold Rush in Colorado. She looked at how this history has been documented and passed on, and how it can be difficult to separate fact from fiction. Her piece responds to a particular story about Asian laborers who worked in laundries because they were forbidden to mine gold, but allowed to clean miner’s clothes. From each laundering of dirty clothing, the Chinese would collect the gold dust that floated in the water and gathered in the drains. This act of washing for residual riches caused the “ Star Crossed Visitors” to be labeled as opportunistic moneymakers. Jennifer has created a monolithic concrete sculpture that takes the form of a washtub large enough to launder sheets. The fence is made of woven Asian hair. These works will stand out awkwardly in this setting and symbolize the displacement of the Chinese migrants in Gold Hill.

Eric has created a series of photograms that have been made by exposing local minerals, including gold flakes, quartz and mica, directly onto the surface of colour film. Made without a camera, the photogram is a shadow; it is not the record of an object but a document of the space that the object no longer occupies. The photograms represent what lies beneath and bring to mind the processes of extracting ore from the ground that define the origins of Gold Hill. The framed prints will be situated on a hillside and suggest a route through the trees. The path continues past the site of an old cabin and a former road and culminates at a mining pit. Inserted in the ground and leaning against trees, these images capture the disruption of the earth and mark the contours of the past.

CLS: What has been the biggest challenge in organizing this pop up exhibition?

LBN: There have been lots of little challenges to do with preparing the sites, working around historic ruins and rough terrain for example. It has also been quite a negotiation to secure three separate sites. On the whole the community of Gold Hill has been very supportive of the project but it is understandably a big ask to get an individual to hand over their private property to an artist and then invite the general public to visit it.

I think there have been moments for each of the artists too, when the outdoor sites have forced them to change their original ideas or intention for the project, but overall they have each handled this very well and I think ultimately their work is strengthen by this process.

Another challenge I am anticipating after the project opens is how to get audiences up to Gold Hill. It is quite a tough road to drive up and it is a bit of a distance from Denver where Black Cube’s core audience is based. I am a little nervous people will be put off by the journey! If I think back to my most profound art encounters they have all involved a journey to get there. In particular I am thinking about the art island of Naoshima in Japan. I think the idea of the art pilgrimage is an exciting one, so I am hopeful many different visitors will make it to Gold Hill.

CLS: What are you most excited about?

LBN: I am eager to see these artworks sitting in their intended locations after over a year of development. I am also excited about the prospect of a very mixed audience coming together in Gold Hill to see the project. I think the combination of the local mountain audience, paired with Black Cube’s Denver and Boulder visitors has interesting potential.

I am very curious to see how visitors will interact with the artworks, the town of Gold Hill and surrounding landscape.