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Issue 05 May 27, 2020

COVID Conversations: Rachel Kay and Courtney Stock

Rachel Kay and Courtney Stock join in conversation about studio practices, the global art world, and acts of kindness on the Internet during quarantine.

Interview by

Rachel Kay and Courtney Stock wave to each other while on Zoom.

Rachel and Courtney chat on Zoom, April 2020.

COVID Conversations is an ongoing series of informal interviews between friends, colleagues, and collaborators about how the global pandemic has shaken (and perhaps forever altered) the art world. This series seeks to illuminate the stories that might otherwise go unwritten—from at home studio practices to curating for a digital platform and everything in between. For the first in this series, we hear from Rachel Kay and Courtney Stock who have been friends for more than twenty years. They both grew up in the Boston area and attended the same elementary and high school. In regular connection about all things art, work, and life, they conducted the following interview in late-April while following shelter in place orders.

Courtney Stock: The coronavirus pandemic has already affected every facet of the international arts community. Permanent and profound changes to the arts seem undeniable and unavoidable. As this tragedy disrupts the systems we’ve inhabited, we’re presented with an opportunity for reinvention. What is your vision for a post-COVID art world? How might we get there?

Rachel Kay: I don’t think we will be able to identify so clearly a world, and thus an art world, that is post-COVID. I think we will be living with effects and altered psychologies for a while, and because of this, I foresee changes in terms of how art is consumed and presented. Like many, I envision more selective participation from gallerists and collectors in public events and in-person gatherings, such as art fairs, openings, biennials, and auctions. I also anticipate less travel and more energy put towards local arts scenes, which could be a very positive outcome for cities like Boston.

CS: What else do you think will change about the art world? What do you think will stay the same? What will be gained and what might be lost?

RK: The role of the digital is likely to expand and continue to have an impact on audiences, attitudes, and art itself. There was certainly a foundation for online engagement, education, and sales prior to the pandemic, but it has developed immensely during the period of shutdown with a new daily mass of virtual exhibitions, viewing rooms, art fairs, artist talks, and studio tours. In a way, the art world has been demystified because of all this, and never before so transparent or accessible. There is much to be gained—artists have a vastly larger reach, for example, and a new generation of collectors are being cultivated this way. The further we get from the pandemic, however, it’s important not to lose sight of the reality that the online art world lives in tandem with the physical one.

On another note, I think a spirit of collaboration and innovation has developed out of these difficult times and will hopefully carry on. Many new initiatives indicate an opening up, experimenting, and coming together of the art world from both the commercial and nonprofit spaces. These initiatives include the Artist Relief Fund, David Zwirner’s Platform series, Wolfgang Tillmans’s Solidarity posters, the ICA Boston’s work with East Boston families… the list goes on!

Portrait of Rachel Kay in her home, 2020.

Portrait of Courtney Stock in her home, 2020.

CS: Yes! I’ve been following the Social Distance Gallery, which is giving a platform for 2020 MFA thesis presentations to be shared with a large audience on Instagram. I’ve also witnessed generosity on the part of the individual artists I follow—people donating work or money to benefit those most directly impacted by the pandemic. People in general seem more forthright about their experiences as artists or as professionals in the art world. The realness is refreshing, emphasizing how opaque, competitive, and capitalistic the art world can seem. What else do you think COVID-19 has revealed about the contemporary art ecosystem?

RK: On a critical level, I think COVID has highlighted within the art world, like in other sectors, discrepancies between the small and the established. For example, large international galleries that have resources and infrastructure to support developments in technology and high-quality documentation of their artists are likely to fare better than small galleries in an online sales market. More generally, the past few months have revealed that periods of restructuring, however devastating, can be cyclical and useful. But above all, I think the power of the real has been asserted during this time.The physical objects, walking around museums, the in-person connections: these are the touchstones of the arts and deeply missed.

CS: What does art mean right now? What is art’s purpose in times like these?

RK: I am reminded of “Leap into the Void,” Yves Klein’s artistic action and photograph from 1960. It’s an image of Klein triumphantly suspended in air after presumably jumping from a window or rooftop. As the viewer, you’re not quite sure if the artist falls flat on his face or soars into the skies. The tension within the frame is at once funny, frightening, surreal, and beautiful. The work resonates with me particularly in this intense period in our lives of fear, uncertainty, and vast possibility. Though “the void” is always present, it does seem greater in times like these. Perhaps the purpose of art is to cross that void and reveal instead that which is unwavering.

What about you, Courtney? What do you think art means right now?

CS: Art is a refuge and a record. I’ve thrown myself into my practice as much as possible, so on a personal level art is my purpose, my buoy, and my guide. Art is my commitment to continuity. In a larger sense, art helps us make sense of the present moment by connecting us with contemporary and historical perspectives that expand our world view. Art allows us to communicate across time and space, revealing our disparate experiences and shared humanity.

How have you been spending your time? Have you read, listened to, or watched anything that felt particularly resonant or useful?

RK: I made a career transition in February, about a month before the pandemic. I left Marianne Boesky Gallery, where I had been for nearly six years, to start my own art advisory. Developing this new business is how I have been spending my time and connecting with many artists, collectors, and gallerists. Otherwise, I walk! I swear by long, cold walks outdoors. I listen to podcasts while walking. I have many on my rotation these days, but Art Agency Partners’ “In Other Words,” the “New York Times’” The Daily, and “The Art Newspaper’s” The Week in Art are constants. It’s a near-daily ritual right now that I have not tired of one bit—I think we’ve all developed new rituals during these unusual times. I have read a few great books as well. Re-reading John Berger’s “Ways of Seeing” in particular was simple and foundational during these days of image overload.

Transitioning over to you, Courtney, and your practice as an artist: How has the pandemic and subsequent shutdown affected your work, both in the studio and as an academic advisor at MassArt?

CS: Fortunately I’ve been able to do both from home. I’ve been advising MassArt students and communicating with my colleagues on video chat since mid-March. It’s definitely different, and I miss seeing everyone in person, but we’re making it work. I’m preparing to teach online for the first time. This summer I’m working with a range of students at MassArt, teaching in the Low Residency MFA program, the pre-college program, and a continuing education workshop. It’s an interesting time to be working in education, and art education particularly. The current challenges of virtually teaching studio art will no doubt lead to innovation, hopefully some sort of platform specifically designed for art curricula.

I set up a space at home that’s serving as my office and studio, and yes, I’m calling it the “stoffice,” because I’ve got to get my kicks where I can these days. I put together some plants and candles and it feels very cozy and safe. I’m trying to sprout raspberries and am learning how to use a sewing machine. I am incredibly grateful to have this space to think and make right now—it’s a privilege I know many don’t have.

I typically don’t keep much of a boundary between my art and my life—I often have works in progress stashed around the house, much to my husband’s chagrin—but that distinction has blurred further. I’ve mostly been working on fiber pieces, made of felted wool, alpaca, silk, and other fibers. My materials are omnipresent: I’m literally covered in fiber most of the time right now. I’m working on my pieces in increasingly intensive and durational ways. I’ve been embroidering with beads and the slowness of the process is intimate and devotional.

Courtney Stock, Sun Goddess of SoCal, 2020, Fiber (wool, silk, alpaca, bamboo), beads (citrine, carnelian, tiger eye, onyx, amethyst, smokey quartz, glass), fabric, thread, Polyfil, 37” X 24” X 7″. Photo courtesy the artist.

RK: Who are some of the artists you turn to during periods of challenge or reflection? Do they help shape your artistic approach at all?

CS: Basquiat is an artist I return to over and over again, especially in times of transition and transformation. His visual vocabulary, all-over compositions, and thoughts on art embolden and fortify my own artistic approach. Basquiat talked about his work in relationship to music, which I relate to. I often find more inspiration from music than I do from visual art. Lately, I’ve been poring over Fiona Apple’s “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” and it’s changing my life. There’s a collaged quality to the album; it feels handmade, and it is, since she recorded the whole album at her house. She’s embracing chaos, synchronicity, and humor, making something experimental and unpolished that feels unabashedly human.

I’ve also been listening to the Strokes’ new album, “The New Abnormal,” which is obviously very aptly named and definitely worth a listen. It’s got that wry sparkle that reminds me of their first two albums. Plus the album cover features a Basquiat painting, so there we go, full circle.

RK: Just as you said about Fiona Apple, your artistic process feels experimental and human. The way that you approach your materials seems intuitive, innate, unafraid. Can you reflect a bit on why this might be, and perhaps share what we might be able to expect next from you?

CS: Experimentation is the driving force of my art. Unstructured time in the studio is a counterbalance to the experience of living within societal structures. The material-driven experimentation exemplifies that freedom from rules and recommendations. I’ve experimented with many materials but I love what I’m using now. Fiber can be reinvented endlessly, so I think I’ll be working with it for a while. I am still creating woven paintings out of canvas and paper, but as I reflect on my work I’m seeing all of my processes blend together, kind of like my life at home right now.

Courtney Stock, Pink Peach, 2019, acrylic spray paint on aluminum, 39” X 16” X 2”. Photo courtesy the artist.

RK: What type of pressure do you feel, if any, to convey through your art the weight or reality of the current moment? Is it a different pressure now than it was before the pandemic?

CS: I feel like I’m being revealed to myself during this time. I can’t hide from myself because who I am is being laid out before me by the reality of how I spend my days, the choices I make, and what I continue to value. I’m thinking a lot about why I make art and what I want from and for art and what I want out of life. I have many more questions than answers, but I also feel that I’m coming home to myself and I want to make work from that place. I feel motivated by the clarity, motivated to thoughtfully generate work that is speaking clearly without pretense. I don’t necessarily feel that my work needs to directly address the seriousness and gravity of this moment, and I don’t think that it could, and I don’t even think that I want it to. But I am experiencing the weight of this moment as a human, so inevitably that will seep into the work.

In the midst of this incredibly uncertain and anxiety-provoking time, I find I’m thinking a lot about ambition, service, and the functionality of gratitude. What have you been reflecting on during this time?

RK: The gift that is nature and the irony that while humans suffer and stall, nature experiences a reprieve.

CS: Beautifully said, my friend.

This article was published in Issue 05: No Boundaries in June, 2020.