January 2009, Interview with Valerie Cueto
Jemma Jorel Interviews Valerie Cueto
For this interview, I headed over to Chelsea on the Eve of Christmas Eve to shake off a hangover with glamorous curator Valerie Cueto. Her eponymous gallery, The Cueto Project, is currently exhibiting an ode to symbolism called The Flowers of Evil Still Bloom (Spleen: Les Fleurs du Mal). The gallery is transformed into a sprawling apartment, dark and uncanny, and the tour through is quite captivating. There was a little something for everyone. If one did not appreciate the variety of mediums, whether the bed of Arman or the coiffure chandelier by Shoplifter, then one would have to at least acknowledge the skilled fusion of contemporary and classic. Symbolism proves to be a lasting source of inspiration to artists, and a movement that stands the test of time as strange and astonishing. I think we all owe a thank you to Ms. Cueto for the fresh incentive to reread Against the Grain.
Who is Valerie Cueto?
You'll have to forgive my orientation. I don't know how you say it in English but I'm all over the place. I'm always, like, in the stairs, you know? Always going somewhere from somewhere. Sometimes just going back to the idea of, 'How did I get there?' is impossible because I'm like running. Well, you see the show. [Answers a phone call from Russia] I'm with a charming journalist, can I call you back?
On Coming to New York from her native Paris:
VC: I was just so tired of the French market, so I decided to take my life and artists here. It's a much easier way. The French collectors would say 'Oh, you know, le Marais, it's a bit far' when they would cross the Atlantic to come to New York. The grass is always greener on the other side of the ocean.
On press. (Or lack thereof):
There hasn't been so much to speak of, except Bob Becker in the Village Voice, who was there from the first, first show. It's almost impossible to get press. I don't see anyone from the NY Times coming. I don't know, I think it's a lack of curiosity.
So how did this show come together?
My friends say that journalists love group shows. I don't like them most of the time. And they said, 'Why don't you do something about symbolism?' There are so many links to today. And...it started to pop in my head. I saw a friend collector and said 'Would you have a Gustave Moreau?' He said yes. And things all came together by accident. Wonderful accident, I might say. I did find some stuff in private collection that I would have never expected, and all the artists were absolutely thrilled to be a part of it. It was really a miracle. Hallelujah. [laughs] It was really the coming together of different components. Through my friend, the Icelandic artist Hrafnhildur Arnardottir, I met Gabriela Fridriksdottir. [Hrafnhildur] was in NY, saw the space, and she really loved it. So she pushed Gabriela to come and she did the invitation. Then she introduced me to two of the artists who she met through a show she was preparing with Gabriela. And it was all connection, interconnection; artists advising me on other artists. It all happened very quickly, thanks to FedEx. People did put [in] energy at the last minute... like the artist Tanja Roscic, who usually works in Switzerland, actually made some works here in the gallery.
For me the big change also was to transform my gallery into a literal apartment. Because the idea is that you were entering the Sphynx, as from the Library of Dorian Gray. And then it was the dining room of Des Esseintes, which is this amazing figure in a book called Against the Grain, which is THE reference book for the symbolist movement. And it's really a big reference in the 19th century. A lot of artists are inspired by the references. So I took these images. The big chandelier is by my friend Hrafnhildur Arnardottir, who is called Shoplifter. She works with a lot of hair. She actually did the cover of one of Bjork's albums. And Gabriela did the writing for another album. They're all linked. When you know one Icelandic, you usually know half of the island very fast.
How has the show changed your style?
It was very hard for me to use color in my gallery. It used to be pure white. I built of walls and all that [sic]. And the first blue I picked up was the wrong blue. [Which reminds me of a bathroom in a house in West Virginia.] And it was just like being raped in my own gallery. Someone was aggressing my gallery, where it was my own artistic direction. It was thoroughly crazy. After, it came up to magic because Gabriela came, and we ordered this hay, and she did the installation where the videos are all about tarot cards and magic. And actually the first work I sought was the drawing of the card of Death in tarot, which is a very good card. It was very difficult to pull together, and I thought I was going to fail, because people had such high expectations about this show. I was saying once they arrive they would say, 'Oh, that was not looking so good,' and I couldn't do something which was so-so.
The day of the show it was raining, and I was not serving alcohol because I wanted to keep the works safe, and most of the people in Chelsea would just come to have a drink and they don't give so much of a shit about the work. I thought they wouldn't come to see it, and it was packed. And people were watching the videos, and parts of the music are very intense... and I looked at the installation and people reacting, and I started to cry. Just talking about it I have the goosebumps. In this business, you have to have emotion like this, some moments where you really have something intense. And those Icelandic girls are so intense. The whole show came out together at once.
What were you trying to express with this exploration of symbolism?
I'm not trying to express anything. I'm trying to show the links. Symbolism is not dead, and it's very present in art today. I mean there are hundreds of other artists I could have included. I could have evolved the show in so many ways. Do it with even more furniture... but I'm just myself. I'm one person, I don't have a sugar daddy. [laughs] Already to put this together was super-expensive and there were limits to my budget in a limited time.
Any surprises bringing the show together?
Natasha Ivanova is one of our Russian artists, and she's pregnant. The painting she sent me was too nice, in the context, with a unicorn. I said, you can do very dark things and suddenly, this! She said, 'Well, I'm just so happy!' and I said, 'Oh, shit'.
What do you bring to your role as curator?
Well, it's been 20 years in this business and I've always loved this movement. I also advise and sell artwork on secondary markets. So I had all the relationships to be able to find the Redon, because everything is for sale in the show. With the dealers, I did work which was not in my field. They all loved the idea, one said you must have The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and he was right, but I never expected that. So people really played on it and we came across things which were in storage forever. Since I know the movement well, for me it was easy to communicate that. It's really my vision of symbolism... what I like. I went to see people and artists and saw what could work in here. And the contemporary work is shown in a different light next to the more classic pieces.
How do you maintain your energy?
Tea and red wine. I don't know, I have so much energy it's frightening. I should do more yoga. I fell into a tub of coke when I was a little girl. [laughs] No, I'm naturally speedy. I think I had to switch out of my country because Paris is a sleeping beauty. It's the most beautiful city in the world but there's no more energy. And we're not supported by collectors. Here, even though it's hard now and we're struggling, everybody is coming to New York at one point in the year. I see more curators and collectors than I would see anywhere else. In Berlin, people go once a year and there is no local market. For me, New York is best. It's really nice to have that energy. I try to keep my eyes open. I think when you keep your eyes open, that's how it really happens.
The Cueto Project is located at:
551, West 21st Street
New York, NY 10011
Noah Becker: Editor-in-Chief