It seems like everything has a gimmick these days. Social media is awash with the bubble gum pink images of the ice cream museum, the immersive Van Gogh experience made famous by the Netflix show Emily in Paris, and then there’s the uber 90’s nostalgic FRIENDS experience…we live in a time where tourist traps are now meticulously crafted experiences for Instagram and TikTok. At first blush, the 21c Museum Hotel Louisville, which boasts of being a hotel, restaurant, and museum all in one, seemed to be of that same ilk. But I had the pleasure of seeing the exhibition Still, Life! Mourning, Meaning, Mending at 21c Museum Hotel, and it is a showcase of thoughtful high caliber art in an unexpected venue in an unexpected city.
Context is content, and thusly it’s impossible to write a review of the exhibition without talking about the hotel that houses it. The exhibition greets you as you step into the lobby; it’s just beyond the gift shop and right outside of the hotel restaurant. It’s kept somewhat separate from the other installations, but there is some visual confusion at first. There is so much to take in, outside the exhibition and throughout the hotel. In the hallways there are interactive installations, art is installed behind the lobby desk, over the sitting area, and hidden in the bathrooms and around corners, and sculptures of red penguins unexpectedly appear in various places. It’s impossible to keep the themes completely delineated.
That being said, once identified the works making up the exhibition tell a compelling story. The exhibition evokes the darkness and trauma from the last few years. Mourning is at the center of the exhibition and the large-scale pieces in the lobby create an impactful opening statement. Standout among them is Ebony G. Patterson’s explosive collage found among the reeds-Dead Treez which faces the entryway; with its sequins and floral motif, it glitters irresistibly but belies a darker message. Hidden just below the surface of sparkling excess like a victim of gun violence. Portia Munson’s absolute showstopper installation, In the Garden, whose maximalist combination of fake flowers and domestic objects reads like a perfectly preserved hoard from a deceased family member. The work is a horrifying multicolored memorial that you have to see in person to truly comprehend. The vibrant works are punctuated by more subdued pieces. A black and white photograph titled Branches, Leaves, and Cabins by Dawoud Bey shows a ghostly image of a house nearly obscured by a gnarled tree branch. It provides a moment of stillness in what is a very active collection of works.
The exhibition design invites you to circulate the lobby before making your way downstairs into a cavernous room filled with more work. Suspended from the impossibly high ceiling in the center of the room is Anne Peabody’s massive metal installation Wheel of Fortune. Scrap metal spans the ceiling and dips down so the sculpture dangles menacingly above you like a prehistoric flying dinosaur. Beyond that, there is more art in a variety of mediums, including large-scale paintings, photography, and multimedia sculptures. It’s a visual buffet covering the spectrum of what is happening in contemporary art today.
The exhibition is a curatorial feat, broad and spanning two floors and multiple galleries. But it is cohesive and does its best to avoid distraction. It’s accessible to its audience. Art enthusiasts will be pleased with the depth and broadness of the show, and the casual art observer will be impressed as well. On occasion, the viewer is asked to do some conceptual heavy lifting. At the end of the day, it is a bit of a tourist attraction, but it doesn’t veer into kitschy. In this impressive standalone exhibition, the art holds up without a doubt.
“Still, Life! Mourning, Meaning, Mending” is on view at 21c Museum Hotel Louisville from December 2021 through December 2022.
Top image: Omar Victor Diop, Selma, 1965, 2016. Inkjet print. Courtesy of Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson, 21c Museum Hotels. A photo shows several men wearing suits and hats standing amongst a stark black background. They are all wearing white leis. The center figure is turned around and looking directly at the viewer.
UnderMain: On the Road sends writers out of Kentucky to explore the visual arts in cities of the Midwest and near South. This program is generously supported by the Great Meadows Foundation.