Arts and Culture

Cortney Lane Stell on First Draft and bringing local artists to the international stage

The curatorial team behind the Biennial's Draft Urbanism exhibitions wanted to turn the city into an international showcase so people-friendly that it's accessible by simply walking down the street. In turn, Draft Urbanism's indoor element, First Draft, was conceived as a welcoming gesture from the local art community to the global one.

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The challenge of selecting the artists to represent Colorado's front line in First Draft was entrusted to Cortney Lane Stell, a Denver-based continental traveler and gallery curator at the Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design. A young woman with an educated eye for art-world trends and philosophies being practiced both here and abroad, Stell was a perfect choice to mine the Biennial's forward-thinking themes through local art.

Stell notes that Draft Urbanism as a whole "looks at the city as an ever-changing entity that's a constant draft of itself," and does that through the eyes of city planners. First Draft, which opens tonight at the McNichols Building in Civic Center Park with a public reception at 7:30 p.m., isn't so different. "In a way, that's what First Draft is doing, too: Looking at the relationship between the art-making process and artists as first draftsmen who push boundaries to speak the new throughout the duration of a career," Stell notes.

Designed to both complement the beautiful Beaux Arts McNichols structure and coexist with the building's multi-use nature as an event center, First Draft is about the fragility of becoming and all the struggles therein. It's also a stunning survey of important ideas in local work, with a focus on artists who are largely young, emerging and flexible.

Stell says she chose the 22 participating artists, many of them "twenty- and thirty-somethings," with a certain practicality in mind, precipitated by time constrictions imposed by a project that only got off the ground in April. "I had to find artists who were willing to work with us," she explains. "A lot of them were selected from artists I've worked with before. I had to be able to trust them."

That trust, as well as a youthful willingness to do whatever it takes on the part of the artists, is paying off: Stell touts the overall quality of the work, from Gretchen Marie Schaefer's delicate installation of "string and the changing light that comes from a window" to Conor King's photographic portrait series of expressionless subjects in standard poses, which despite their sterility "bring out subtleties that actually show the humanity in individuals."

Laura Shill's astonishing 600-pound fiber installation, A Small Room, promises to be a highlight of First Draft: a sheltering,ceiling-hung chandelier of stuffed fabric tubes falling like giant dreadlocks to the floor, the piece impresses the sheer weight of process in motion.

And from Denver artist/collector/gallerist Devon Dikeou comes a piece that invites public participation for the duration of First Draft's run: Open Art Fax Line is exactly what the title promises. A fax machine on the floor, it's set up to receive faxed artworks from anyone and everyone, day or night. "It's new version of a fax people installed in the '90s -- part research, part invitation and part performance," says Stell, who notes that the reiterative piece represents an "electronic open-door policy with artwork." The line is open now; call 303-482-1988 to send your images. Dikeou will archive the results.

That's just a sneak peek of what you'll find in the McNichols Building tonight. But for Stell, it's a sign that her mission's been accomplished. "I do think it is important to place local community on an international stage," she concludes. "Denver has challenges with location -- it's a land island -- and anything we can do to support our artists helps support growth in the creative community."

First Draft remains on view through September 2; visit the Biennial website for more information.

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