WORDS Sara Lee Burd
PHOTOGRAPHY Jerry Atnip
When Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson founded the 21c boutique art museum hotel in Louisville, Kentucky, they envisioned an innovative space to exhibit their vast collection of international contemporary art. The concept centered on breaking boundaries between art and guests, diners, and gallery visitors who pass freely through the hotel. Artworks are not there to fall away as a design element; rather they command the hotel experience. Long-time Nashville resident and 21c Nashville Museum Manager Brian Downey enthusiastically relates, “Nashville has such great contemporary galleries and museums, but I’ve always wanted Nashville to have a contemporary art center, a museum strictly devoted to contemporary art.” Nashville’s 21c, located in the fully renovated 19th-century Gray and Dudley Hardware building downtown, boasts 124 guest rooms, conference areas, and 10,500 square feet of gallery space. It’s certainly not a typical hotel or a typical art museum.
Committed to connecting with the Nashville community, 21c hosts public talks and dedicated exhibition space for local artists. Downey heads the Elevate program in Nashville, which promotes significant art being made in Nashville. For the first installations, he curated Vadis Turner’s dynamic compositions and Alicia Henry’s captivating mask-like cutouts into four locations on the guest floors. Explaining the significance of his choice, Downey says, “They are both incredible female artists that work with materials considered to be feminine, such as ribbon, felt, and lace stitched together. I thought this was a good presentation for the Nashville spaces.”21c Museum Director and Chief Curator Alice Gray Stites’s curatorial vision for 21c is driven by her desire to organize alluring exhibitions that expose the public to current conversations in contemporary art. At any given time, Stites is working on twenty different shows around all of the seven 21c locations and is constantly looking for ways to strike curiosity with art and ideas. Explaining her process, the curator says she begins by brainstorming how the works in the collection can combine to make a compelling statement. Stites particularly appreciates that the work the museum acquires provides cross-cultural exposure. “It is evident that if you are going to be showcasing 21st-century art, it should be global in nature. That is the world that we live in. It’s also far more interesting to see images of cultures of which we are not familiar alongside things that we recognize.” She concludes, “What is timely? What is a current theme or idea that people would enjoy thinking about, learning about, talking about, arguing about . . . that’s the kind of thing I want to do.”
The first exhibition to fill the three floors of dedicated museum space, lower level, first floor, and second floor, is Truth or Dare: A Reality Show. The expansive exhibition, featuring over 100 works, unfolds with the very spirit of relevance, diversity, and globalism Stites seeks in her curatorial practice. In Truth or Dare she organized art from the permanent collection that asks questions about what “reality” is in the 21st century. Focusing on the fluidity of information over time, the uncertainty that comes with technological advances, the effects of environmental degradation, the subjectivity of boundaries, and the unconstrained nature of imagination, she provides a range of exemplary artworks to consider. She promotes examination of human constructions, positing that the way we interpret our cultural expectations, personal identity, geography, and sources of truth may have a limited connection to “truth” and “reality” when viewed from other perspectives. Including recurring references to common items such as books, maps, games, and videos, Stites captivates viewers immediately, and in doing so mediates hesitations to exploring the complex philosophical queries she inspires. The exhibition also includes confounding works that require time and creativity on the part of the visitor to resolve.
“Committed to connecting with the Nashville community, 21c hosts public talks and dedicated exhibition space for local artists.”
Inquisitions of boundary, technology, and expectations of privacy arise with the site-specific installation in the hotel lobby by Turkish artist Serkan Özkaya, An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Nashville. Video cameras record the action that occurs in the spaces physically blocked from view by the lobby walls, and projectors display that footage real-time onto the lobby walls. The voyeuristic aspect of the experience is enticing as one can imagine the dramatic changes the electronic eye captures as bustling business workers that populate the area during the day subside to the entertainment seekers who come out at night. Drawing this work into a serious contemporary conversation on transparency, Stites notes, “Watching the passersby projected in real-time surveillance footage is a reminder of our constant negotiations with privacy and safety within public spaces.”
Stites selects art that challenges expectations by subverting traditional fine art styles and subjects. Alejandro Diaz’s mixed-media tromp l’oeil installation Please Do Not Touch looks like an unfinished electrical repair, but is really a mixed-media installation. Miss the museum label and you may walk away unaware that what you thought was mundane was not. In Alejandro Almanza Pereda’s A Glass of Fruit, a still-life is created underwater. The submerged fruit forms a random arrangement as some float up to be stopped by a sheet of glass, and others are weighted down onto that same sheet of glass. The effect is offsetting and humorous. Questions abound: What am I looking at? Is it a mirror reflection? Why can’t I stop watching?
Another classic subject, the portrait, is presented through a quizzical lens in the exhibition. As Stites explains, “We project and perceive different versions of ourselves and others all the time.” In a portrait that blends a photograph of himself with a printed reproduction of a portrait made by the 18th-century Spanish artist Francisco Goya, Albano Afonso created a way to insert himself into the European art historical tradition of portraiture. By focusing on reproduction and manipulation, Stites notes that the Brazilian artist’s Self Portrait with Goya “destabilizes the idea of what portraiture is and calls attention to the instability of identity in the digital age. Identity is more negotiable and shifting than it was in Goya’s day. It was a way of visually enshrining someone as a wealthy person to now it being something we trust far less.”
Stites challenges the fixity of knowledge with artworks that employ “outdated, obsolete, or unreliable sources of truth in the 21st century.” According to the curator, Brian Dettmer uses books as his medium in an attempt to preserve them in art as we move away from print. In Funk and Wag he forms a sculptural assemblage with series of encyclopedias. Using a subtractive process, he carves out selections from the books in layers to reveal words and images that appear on disparate pages. The unexpected juxtapositions he creates relay new stories with new meanings unrelated to the intention of the original text.
Jane Hammond’s All Souls (Bielawa) explores what Stites describes as “the bodilessness of information today and pays homage to paper and handwritten information it contains.” The mixed-media map presents Hammond’s reinterpretation of the borders that divide European countries and honors the lives lost in war to draw political lines in handwritten text. Stites explains, “In a world of GPS, we know where we are with a keystroke. Paper maps are becoming artifacts now.” By securing paper butterflies in a migration pattern across the map, the artist contrasts the fixed exactness of nature with the shifting political constructs that shape our conception of individual nations.
Another reference to cartography in the exhibition includes Daniele Papuli’s Centrica, which addresses the real and perceived interconnectedness of places and cultures. The Italian artist’s meticulous assemblage of geometrically fragmented maps recalls ornate Islamic tiles referencing both European and Arabic traditions. Stites explains that the prominently placed circles in the composition present protest slogans that were used in Egypt at the beginning of the Arab Spring. She elaborates, “It is a global world, and if something happens in Egypt it will affect people around the globe.” In this work Papuli asserts that interchange has occurred for centuries and continues despite the religious and political interests that further notions of difference.
Interactive artworks in this show encourage people to entangle themselves with the fluidity of reality. For example, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer has six cameras that scan constantly for faces in his surveillance- technology-based Redundant Assembly. Once found, the computer begins combining the features of people standing before it. The resulting hybrid portrait displayed on the monitor shifts and reformulates in real time as the “sitters” move. In Win Win (Flamingo’s Dream) by Trong Gia Nguyen a Ping-Pong table gives visitors a chance to play a round against themselves. The mirrored backboard that gives the sense of playing against a real opponent becomes a humorous struggle of strategizing how to beat yourself.
The restaurants in all of the 21cs contain curated rotating galleries. Nashville’s Gray and Dudley currently features Beth Cavener Stichter’s installation Menagerie, which includes well-crafted, yet somewhat grotesque mixed-media sculptures of suspended goats and sheep. While some may find these a bizarre choice for a dining area, their impact successfully demands that diners engage in conversation about the art surrounding them.
What is to come at 21c? The richness and variety of international artworks on exhibit and in the collection are promising signs that this new arts space will provide continued access to new compelling art in Nashville. When asked what she won’t do, Stites responded, “What I think about any community is that I have too much respect for the public to decide that we shouldn’t share something, particularly when it is asking tough questions.” She concludes that the future knows no bounds, and in her experience, “The only thing I know after twenty years of being a curator is that you can’t predict how people are going to react. The most important thing is to think about the art itself and how can we present art in a way that creates a compelling, articulate story that raises questions.”
“The richness and variety of international artworks on exhibit and in the collection are promising signs that this new arts space will provide continued access to new compelling art in Nashville.”
Truth or Dare: A Reality Show and Menagerie are on exhibit now at 21c. For more information, please visit www. 21cmuseumhotels.com/nashville.