Keith Banner

Welcome to the Hotel Synesthesia:  21C, Downtown Cincinnati

By Keith Banner

“If you don’t know where you are going any road can take you there.”

― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland


The day after 21C Cincinnati, the lush hotel/museum right next door to the Contemporary Art Center, opened, I went for a visit.  I didn’t want a tour; I just wanted to experience the place the way it gets experienced most often, as a walk-in, a tourist.  It was a chilly Friday night, and from the get-go the place felt haunted yet brand new simultaneously. packed with artsy middle-aged married couples, many wearing the funky, stylized eyewear of Brooklyn hipsters and/or the funky, stylized scarves of ladies who lunch.  It was like an orderly carnival, with art everywhere, and people drinking and laughing in the plush bar next door.

The atmosphere came off as sophisticated and easygoing, pretentious and completely charming. Contemporary art had been given a space gaudy and frenetic as a funhouse, sincere and stately as a cathedral.  But also the place already felt pleasurably lived-in, comfortably quaint, like a hotel you might come across after being lost on vacation, stumbling into luxury and wanting to remain there for weeks.

As I walked through all the exhibits, it became a synesthetic undertaking, senses overloaded not because there’s so much to see, but because someone had taken the time to curate and structure so much art into this odd and overwhelming whole.  I felt like an orphan trapped in a beautiful art orphanage, Alice wandering room to room, floor to floor.  No Mad Hatters though. Just those whispering artsy middle-aged married couples sauntering past work after work, buzzed by all the ostentatious fussiness, a celebration of conspicuous consumption and the primal need to be seen consuming it.

The curatorial point of view comes from that serendipity, and as you slide past all the works on all the floors (not to mention all the art inside the suites and rooms) you get the feeling that nothing means anything even while meaning and nuance ripen into atmosphere and hallucination.  Everywhere you look there’s some kind of strange new world.  Judy Fox’s creepy, hyper-realistic naked-children statues on the main floor echo and intensify Edward Keinholz’s gothic/grotesque tropes.  Brian Knep’s “Healing Tiles” turn the floors in front of the first-floor elevators into psychedelic mind-fucks, fluorescent light patterns that waver like phantasmagoric puddles until you touch them with your feet.  Upon that disturbance the puddles of fluorescence scatter and shiver, and you feel like you’ve disturbed a school of fish into action.  George Legrady’s “Refractions” near the entrance to the bar are photographs the artist layers through a lenticular process, creating cosmic, smeared moments in time that have the depth and heft of a Proust novel, and the immediacy of photojournalism turned into dream.

The randomness inherent in the 21C adventure, the merging of coziness and curation, is what makes the 21C such a great anti-museum museum experience.  Even while all the art is given reverence with exhaustive title-cards and exquisite placement, there’s a feeling of whimsy and insouciance in the air, as if the curators and creators have taken into account that people will be staying here for a little while, paying attention to the art of course, but also just simply coexisting with it, lingering with it with a cocktail, ignoring it as well as they luxuriate in the essence just as much as trying to understand the art’s importance or meaning. That gives all the exhibits a sort of reprieve from being precious and serious, and transforms the art-viewing endeavor into instinct and joy, not lugubrious study and intense (and often pseudo) analysis.  The 21C aesthetic is pretty much about how it feels to be in the same room with things so bizarrely and singularly created you have to laugh.  You get to know each piece the way you get to know the furniture.  You experience it functionally, but you also admire its manufacture, its sense of what it is.

My favorite surprise: a little boardroom on the second floor, claustrophobic and blond-wood-bureaucratic, with several Kara Walker cutouts beautifully framed and installed on all four walls. Remember that scene in The Empire Strikes Back? The one where Lando Calrissian betrays Han, Luke, Leia, Chewbacca, and C3PO, escorting them to a conference room on Cloud City, and there sits Darth Vader at the breakfast nook?  That’s the feeling I got: a sweet, ironic little shock, Walker’s slave silhouettes providing both respite and a weird, innocent terror, as if her work has been coopted and yet that seems to be the best way to gather meaning beyond what was initially intended.  21C is a place where art loses its starchiness and becomes a sort of celebration of the folly of not knowing what things mean and the ecstasy of never really needing to find out.

Relax, have a drink, stay a while, enjoy the view…

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