Art Uncaged: Black Cube Roams Denver

Artist and philanthropist Laura Merage and longtime curator Cortney Lane Stell are bringing contemporary art into view with their nomadic pop-up gallery.
"Interesting, huh?" says a 9-to-5er, sleeves rolled to accommodate the midday heat. Walking down Market Street, between 16th and 17th streets, he stumbled on SANGREE: Unclassified Site Museum, a temporary art installation depicting the fictive ruins of a block-long housing complex imagined by Mexican artists Carlos Lara and René Godinez Pozas.

LoDo's latest piece of public art is barely visible from afar; close-up, though, two thick panes of subterranean glass reveal an imaginary archaeological dig site containing remnants of a multi-family residential compound -- evidence of an ancient civilization -- built into adjacent tree wells.

A nearby shipping container -- open Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, noon to 4 p.m. and by appointment -- houses a scale-model of the faux apartments. Weatherproof and mobile without being overly transitory, Black Cube Art's signature structure has traveled to 10 of the year-old organization's 11 openings.   

Cortney Lane Stell, executive director and chief curator for the contemporary art nonprofit incubated by the David and Laura Merage Foundation, is nearby, working with a team of fabricators from Demiurge to remedy a condensation problem that's been plaguing SANGREE since it opened in mid-September in the plaza of a now-vacant RTD terminal.

"Dusk is the best time to observe SANGREE because the glass is highly reflective," Stell says. When you're the caretaker for roaming art installations, you're bound to run into some uncommon problems.   

Stell met Lara and Pozas at the Museo Universitario del Chopo in Mexico City last year, and immediately approached the duo about joining Black Cube, whose organizational moniker is a play on the ideology of traditional gallery space, known as white cube. Black Cube's two-prong mission involves eliminating brick-and-mortar barriers to art and helping artists live sustainable lives. And that's a mission Black Cube's founder and funder, artist Laura Merage, wholeheartedly backs.

Art sustaining art Cortney Lane Stell, executive director and chief curator for Black Cube Art.

"Being an artist, I know firsthand the challenge artists experience, especially in this country," says Merage, who also founded RedLine, a 20,000-square-foot contemporary art center and residency program. Black Cube and RedLine, though, are separate entities. "They have nothing to do with each other, except that they are two art institutions started by the same person in the same city," Merage explains.

In 1974, at age 15, Merage left her parents and hometown of Tehran, Iran, to come to California. The youngest of six, she was the first woman in her family to go to college, and she went on to earn a master's in art, too, from New York University. "Even though my father hated the idea of sending me away at that age, he had to agree that education was still more important," Merage says.

Decades later, Merage's education and fortitude have clearly paid off; her artwork has appeared in both public and private collections nationally and internationally, and Merage parlayed her success into several philanthropic organizations founded with her husband, David Merage, co-founder of Chef America, the company that came up with Hot Pockets.

RedLine -- one of Merage's notable local contributions -- has been described by its founder as "a place that is not a gallery, not a museum, not a co-op, but something that brings together all of those for the community." If RedLine is about "blurring the lines," as Merage puts it, then her newest endeavor, Black Cube, is about erasing those lines entirely.

"Being nomadic creates more flexibility, more agility," says Merage, elaborating, "We are not bound by a neighborhood, or even the city we are in -- though we have tremendous affinity to Denver, and we try to promote artists within the city and state."

Without the constraints of a brick-and-mortar, "We can go anywhere at any moment," says Merage. "As challenging as it might be to find new locations, with that challenge comes very unique opportunity."

The greatest, perhaps, is making contemporary art accessible to a wide audience of viewers. "Statistics show that a fairly low percentage of Americans actually walk into a gallery or a museum," Merage says, adding, "I think that's very unfortunate." As far as she's concerned, "A healthy community depends on the health of its arts community. There needs to be good access to the arts."

Creative contextBlack Cube exhibitions are always temporary.

With white cube, curators typically begin with artwork, or a collection of objects. Not Black Cube: "We start with artists' ideas," says Stell. When Lara and Pozas expressed their "general interest in humankind history and how that fits into this present time," as Lara puts it, Stell scoured Denver for a plot to accommodate that theme.

"I was interested in this site as a modern ruin in Denver," says Stell. Currently owned by Continuum Partners, the 1600 block of Market Street has been home to a bus station and, before that, Denver's first mint. Continuum's plan is for mixed-use development; in the meantime, though, CEO Mark Falcone -- a big supporter of local art, Stell says -- granted Black Cube use of the land for about six months, or until his firm begins demolition in early 2017.

"We never own the site we're working on," Stell continues. Part of her job as curator, then, is negotiating with landowners. "The beauty of Black Cube is also what's challenging."

Black Cube aspires to conspire with six artists annually, and it continues to support its fellows with year-out alumni projects, too. "We fund artists to produce a project that will move their career, and we work on professional development goals -- plus we pay artists for their labor, which, unfortunately, is very unique," says Stell, noting that most museums compensate artists with exposure in lieu of cash.

Stell is constantly on the go. This year alone, Black Cube has brought its unique brand of art to the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design (RMCAD) in Lakewood, Marjorie Park at Fiddler's Green Amphitheatre in Greenwood Village, Gold Hill -- a mining town in Boulder County -- and San Antonio, Texas. "We have a project that will be moving to Boulder later this month," Stell says, referring to Jon Geiger's neon tumbleweed sculpture, ROAM, on display at RMCAD until Oct. 17. "Next year," she adds, "we're working on projects in Denver, Los Angeles and Venice."

Black Cube exhibitions are always temporary. "They could be up for as short as one night," Stell says, pointing to Sophont in Action, the large-scale live cinema presentation artist Desirée Holman crafted for Black Cube's launch at Red Rocks Amphitheatre on Oct. 1, 2015. Nearly 600 spectators showed up to see an elaborate live performance built on Holman's exploration of New Age mysticism, science fiction and technology, played out in front of a massive projection mapping on the iconic site's monumental rocks.     

"Another project I'm really proud of," Stell says, "is Prospector by Chad Person." The 40-foot-tall piece went up near the Colorado State Capital last October, and was Person's first attempt at a major outdoor sculpture. Inspired by Disney's Toy Story 2 prospector, Stinky Pete, Prospector is "a monument for a new digital frontier," Stell says. "Chad was digging at Denver's taste in public art: the big blue bear, blue Mustang at DIA." More of Person's inflatable sculptures appeared in "Blow Up" at RedLine in September.

"Part of our goal of being accessible lies in telling the whole story," Stell explains. In addition to site-specific exposure, Black Cube covers its artists on its website, too, where Stell visually reveals the process behind installations.

"It's wonderful to bring art out to the subject, the happenstance, where people can engage with the art where they live and work, and understand contemporary art better," Merage says.  

Photos by Kara Pearson Gwinn.

Read more articles by Jamie Siebrase.

Jamie Siebrase is a Denver-based freelance writer who who writes about art, culture, and parenting for Westword and Colorado Parent.
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