Sunday, November 8, 2015

A Journey to the Art Hotels of Indianapolis

(Note to readers: I'm publishing this on my blog site, as I was just back at the Alexander this First Friday.  I thought that this long piece I wrote a couple of years ago might be an interesting addendum to my November First Friday blog and some other pieces that I wrote recently for NUVO.)

January 30, 2013
Five days ago, on the Fourth Friday of the month, I visited the newly opened The Alexander—as well as three other downtown Indianapolis hotels—to take a serious look at the art in their lobbies and public spaces.  I wanted to explore the recent trend of hotels morphing into high-end art galleries.  I wanted to check out some examples of this trend playing out in Indy. I wanted to check out the art without checking in, as it were, and see if the hotel personnel were okay with this.  I was interested, particularly, in the idea of private hotel establishments reconfiguring their ideas of public space.  It was—as you might imagine—an altogether different type of experience than your typical First Friday downtown gallery walk in the city of Indianapolis sponsored by the Indianapolis Downtown Artists and Dealers Association.
I started my tour of hotels not at The Alexander—with its groundbreaking array of art curated by the Indianapolis Museum of Art’s Lisa Freiman—but at the Conrad, a new hotel (built in 2006) adjacent to the Circle Center Mall.  Since 2011, ModernMasters Fine Art has curated “A Fine Art Experience at the Conrad,” which features both internationally recognized and Indianapolis area-based artists in the hotel’s public spaces. The high-end Long-Sharp Gallery—which describes its inventory on its website as ranging “from Picasso to Pop,”—is an extension of ModernMasters, and is located on the ground floor of the Conrad, accessible from the Conrad lobby.  
In the hotel lobby itself you could see the large black and white screen prints of British artist Russell Young made sparkly by the use of diamond dust as a medium. Young’s subjects on display here were all famous, mostly dead, icons; Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Coco Channel, and John Lennon among them.
Before looking at the work in the lobby in detail, however, I went up to the second floor conference area. Interspersed among the paintings of several other local artists in the conference room lobby, I encountered the screen prints of Carmel, IN.-based Walter Knabe, a renowned wallpaper designer and painter.  His screen prints of Buddha and Queen Elizabeth—splashed expressionistically with paint—interested me in terms of their composition and bold use of color.  Unabashedly commercial, unabashedly decorative—Knabe is at once an artist and an interior decorator—they also seemed to come from well-trodden artistic territory.  That is to say, if the Warholian Pop Art can be considered a language, Knabe was using some of those very same verb declensions and idioms.    
The same thing could be said about the Russell Young prints downstairs only more so.  

The pretty young woman behind the counter, working as a concierge, let me step behind the front desk and check out the glittering print of Jackie O waving from a car. With her welcoming acquiescence, I was able to see such works up close.  And I could see that these stars had truly arrived (or re-arrived, considering the Warholian precedents) at a hyper-commodified iconography that didn’t seem out of place in this upscale hotel lobby. 
Yet the Conrad has featured more engaging work in the past—more engaging to me for what that’s worth—including rare etchings, prints, and linoleum cuts by Pablo Picasso featuring as subject Marie-Thérèse Walter, his longtime mistress, model, and muse. 

And while the Conrad can certainly live up to its claim of presenting the work of “Modern” (and Postmodern) masters, the “Fine Art Experience at the Conrad” didn’t really speak to the turbulence in the contemporary art world, or so it seemed to me.
After getting my fill of the Conrad, I started on foot west on Washington Street towards my next destination: the JW Marriott. Now, the JW, which opened in 2011, doesn’t have any curated art program within its vast complex. What it does have: by far the most awe-inspiring exterior of any hotel in the city. It just so happens to be the world’s largest JW Marriot, 33 stories high, designed by CSO Architects and HOK Chicago. It’s also the largest hotel in Indianapolis, and probably the most expensive ever to be built here. Accordingly, it received $60 million worth of financing from the city to leverage its construction. (The Conrad Hilton, which I had just left, had also received financing from the city to the tune of $25 million.)  But I wasn’t thinking about the Indianapolis taxpayer on my walk west.  I was instead transfixed by the edifice’s bluish concave façade of mirrored glass. 

It’s an awe-inspiring architectural—and artistic!—achievement. While Indianapolis-born architect Evans Woollen is renowned for creating spaces that dialogue with the Circle City—particularly his Central Library addition—the Chicago-based architects of the JW created an edifice that seems to be having an ongoing conversation with the sky.
Walking into the JW, however, was a disappointment compared to its jaw-dropping exterior. The lobby was spacious and uncluttered; the backlit transparencies of vegetation behind the front desk were coolly chic. But I wasn’t overwhelmed. I was expecting to see the hanging gardens of Babylon, I suppose.

A small sculpture caught my attention. It was gold-colored, more than a foot tall, set on a pedestal, recessed into the wall adjacent to the front desk; a hybrid lion/bird: the sphinxlike emblem of JW Marriott made three-dimensional. Statues of sphinxes abound as relics of ancient Babylonia; perhaps the JW Marriott aspires to Babylonian grandeur with its worldwide (and in-part publicly financed) hotel empire.  
My next stop on my fourth Friday tour was the University Place Conference Center and Hotel on the Indiana University-Purdue University campus (IUPUI)—a half mile or so west of the JW. I wanted to pay another visit to The National Art Museum of Sport (NAMOS), housed in the hotel conference center. I wanted to see if things had changed since I’d lambasted their permanent collection in a NUVO Newsweekly review back in 2010.

One particular painting by the late Germain G. Glidden, the founder of The National Art Museum of Sport—a fixture of the permanent collection—had attracted my ire in that review.  Entitled "George H.W. Bush in Action," (oil on canvas), it portrayed the former president against a pastoral golf course backdrop. I’d found this and other paintings by Glidden to be odd in their misplaced deification of recent political leaders, including Ronald Reagan.  I had also remarked, in that review, on a beautiful, semi-abstract painting by the late Robert Berkshire that had portrayed a basketball game in motion.  But apparently the action wasn’t portrayed clearly enough for the curators’ target audience of conventioneers; they had placed a bronze sculpture of two basketball players right in front of the painting, as if to say, “This abstract work is about basketball too!”   
Still, I didn’t find it to be a total mockery of a museum.  Here and there I found numerous examples of paintings and prints that I liked very much, including some wood engravings by Winslow Homer, scattered here and there through the collection.

But alas, when I walked into the conference center, I found that much of the art was gone.  I soon discovered that the museum, currently closed, is searching nationwide for a new home.  It’s just as well for NAMOS, I think.  A university conference center, with its crowds of conference attendees, is a difficult space to house art museum.  On my last visit to the museum I’d found myself overwhelmed by bustle and noise of an ongoing FFA (formerly the Future Farmers of America) convention.  I’d also found myself distracted by several food carts that were meant for conference-goers from which I did partake.
But now this space was eerily quiet.  Not only was the museum closed, but so was the hotel that housed the museum.

I walked down to the closed University Place hotel lobby and front desk.  I found this to be sad—and oddly engaging—in its transitional state. The hotel portion of the University Place Hotel and Conference Center, which closed last year, is currently being converted into student housing. These developments certainly have to do with the fact that University Place was unable to compete with the myriad hotel  options—a constantly expanding array of options—in Indy’s downtown.

I noticed the numerous professional illustrations on 8 ½ x 11 sheets of paper hung along the boarded off construction area. These drawings showed shadowy student figures in silhouette moving through a brand new dining facility.  Knowing that the future can never be in doubt in illustrations such as this, I recalled a phrase torn from the script of my favorite all-time movie Jesus of Montreal :  “Hope, the most irrational and unyielding of emotions, mysterious hope that makes life bearable.” 
Perhaps, when we see a new building going up, it reassures us because we know investors somewhere are confident about the future to put their money down.

Such thoughts, by circuitous route, bring us to The Alexander. Part of the multiuse $155 million, 14-acre CityWay Complex, developed by Buckingham Companies, this hotel is open but was very much still under construction at the time of my visit.  Developed on land owned by Eli Lilly; Cityway was developed by Lilly as a way to lure the world’s best and brightest young minds to its huge corporate campus in downtown Indianapolis with ultra-hip options in urban living and entertainment.  
The Alexander takes the art hotel model represented by The Conrad—and by a growing number of hotels throughout the U.S.—to a much higher level. (CityWay also takes public financing to a higher level, as the project has received a 10-year, $86 million construction loan from the city of Indianapolis.)   

The novelty of this artistic collaboration became clear to me the moment I walked into the hotel.  At that moment, I was not only greeted not only by the courteous and helpful hotel staff, but by Alyson Shotz’s “Standing Wave” sculpture, some fifteen feet high and twenty feet across. The quantity and quality of light coming through the windows was reflected in this clear acrylic material of the sculpture on this particular gray winter day.
The curatorial work by the Indianapolis Museum of Art’s Lisa Freiman throughout the hotel’s public spaces, on all floors, is groundbreaking and perhaps without precedent; everywhere you look in this sleek and stylish hotel, you’ll find museum-quality contemporary art. This selection of art includes 14 site-specific installations, many of which use novel materials (such as vinyl or hair combs) as their media. The art traverses a wide field of contemporary styles and attitudes in more than forty works by more than twenty artists (four of them local). There’s figurative art and abstract art. There’s art that pertains to Indianapolis specifically, there’s art engaged in other locales, and there’s art untethered to any particular place. There’s videography, sculpture, photography, and painting. And if that’s not enough to prove the Alexander’s cutting edge contemporary bona fides, there’s British artist Nick Walker’s graffiti-influenced spray paint art in The Alexander’s parking garage.

As I walked up to the second floor lobby, Arcade Fire’s baroque pop anthem “Mountains Beyond Mountains” played on the sound system, as if to announce that a new and ultra-hip generation of hotel managers and entrepreneurs had taken the reigns of power in this highly competitive industry.
On the second floor, I came across another site-specific installation, Sonya Clark’s eight-foot-high portrait of Madam C.J. Walker, the African-American multimillionaire entrepreneur who began the planning of the Indy’s historic Madame Walker Theater prior to her death in 1919.  In this sculptural portrait, built of 3,840 black “Unbreakable” brand hair combs, you can see that the chosen media is one with the conceptual content of the piece; Madam Walker made her fortune selling hair products to Black women.

There’s also diversity subject matter as well as in placement of art as I discovered when I walked into the 2nd floor men’s restroom.  Indianapolis-based Brian McCutcheon’s photographs from his series “Alien Landscape” show two astronauts in space suits who also happen to be father and son. One showed the pair playing ball; the other showed father pushing son (McCutcheon and his real-life son) in a shopping cart through a Marsh Supermarket parking lot. 
You—if you’re male—can contemplate the things that fathers pass down to their sons in terms of understanding, compassion and, well, genetics, while using the urinals on the wall facing the photographs. (I didn’t have the opportunity to visit see Kim Beck’s vinyl on windows installation in the women’s restroom for obvious reasons.) 

Also on the second floor lobby is Adam Cvijanovic’s painting “10,000 Feet” (flash paint on Tyvek) that demonstrates what a huge gash in an airplane’s exterior might look like before the plane tumbles down towards earth. Cvijanovic depicts Midwestern farm country as if from 10,000 feet above—through a trompe l’oiel gash in the wall on which it’s painted.  And from such a height the summertime landscape reveals patterns that are not apparent from the ground.  You can see the vegetation surrounding creeks flowing into rivers, flowing across a plowed checkerboard plain stretching to every horizon.
And then there was the Plat 99 Mixology Lounge.

I walked into this bar designed by Jorge Pardo—his handiwork is most noticeable in the multicolored jellyfish-like light fixtures above the bar—and sat down. From my barstool perch I looked out to the west through the glass windows and saw the Eli Lilly corporate campus; to the south I saw Lucas Oil Stadium, the home of the Indianapolis Colts.  Nearby a woman in a business suit and her partners were discussing the ins and the outs of the hotel industry while drinking complicated cocktails.  Everything about the floating ambience of the place seemed to make me feel that I was en route to some fabulous destination. 
Yet there were other moments that brought me back to earth.

I felt this particularly in contemplating the meaning of one painting entitled “Puppets” by Jane Hammond, over a stairwell on the second story lobby.  When I first saw the male subjects of this painting holding cords leading to nooses around each other’s necks, I thought that the subjects might be African-American. I had spent some time looking at, and contemplating the meaning of the Madam Walker portrait, so I was viewing the painting through the filter of Indiana’s checkered racial past. (Walker was involved in the NAACP’s anti-lynching movement and worked to making lynching a federal crime.)  I couldn’t help wondering for a moment whether or not there was an intentional link to Indiana’s history of race relations in this particular work of art.     
But then I noticed things about the painting that didn’t speak to this history. First of all, the subjects were smiling playfully. Secondly, these men were pulling each other’s necks with cord, not hemp rope.  And, finally, the more I studied the men in the painting, the more indeterminate their ethnicity appeared to me.  So, in the end, I really wasn’t sure what to make of this painting which incorporated novel materials as media, and which seemed conceptually ambiguous.

Yesterday I contacted the artist and asked her directly by email about the painting and she replied with this statement:
Thanks for your inquiry re my painting "Puppets."  This is part of a new series of paintings I call the "Dazzle Paintings."  I am attaching a statement I wrote about them. All of these paintings are based on found vernacular photos and so is this one.  The men in the original photo are clearly white and their mood is very playful. I call this kind of photo "horsing around" and there are many photos in this genre--although this one is unusual. Typically one would see two guys both with paper bags over their heads, both standing in barrels, hanging from a tree branch. It is a little piece of theatre occasioned by the presence of the camera. 

I have no reason to doubt Hammond’s thematic statement about her work. At the same time, I don’t think it’s possible for the viewer to know whether the men in the painting are white or black. The reflective and metallic properties of her media (acrylic paint on mica over Plexiglas) make it impossible for a viewer to determine this.
Whatever the message of this particular painting, it seemed like an odd curatorial choice in a city that had just several years ago experienced controversy over a proposed sculpture “E Pluribus Unum” by Fred Wilson that would have been erected outside Indy’s City County Building.  The subject of this proposed sculpture, a freed African-American slave, was based on a figure from the Indianapolis Soldiers and Sailors’ Monument. (This is the 284 foot neoclassical monument in Monument Circle, in the center of Indianapolis, completed in 1910.)  This figure would have been holding in his hands a multicolored flag representing the African diaspora.

But was a statue of a freed slave really the best way to represent African American progress at the dawn of the 21st century?  Quite a few in Indy’s black community didn’t think so.  Some reacted hotly to this proposed statue.  One writer memorably wrote to the The Recorder—Indy’s weekly African-American paper—stating “We don’t need any more images of lawn jockeys, caricatures… no more buffoonery, no more shuckin’ and jiven’, and no more ape-ish looking monuments.”
Considering the controversy around this project, which resulted in the Fred Wilson sculpture project being shelved—the curators were surely aware of this controversy—I can’t help but wonder why they weren’t more mindful about how Hammond’s “Puppets” might be perceived by Indy’s Black community. Was the African-American community considered to be more of a subject, and less of an audience, in this curatorial work? At the very least, think some kind of placard adjacent to the painting with text regarding the artist’s intent would have been apropos. 

Curating is, to some degree, about creating an appropriate context. Context sometimes can influence how a particular painting is received through the eyes of a viewer—as much or more than the actual intent of the artist. Context mattered to me in looking at the poorly curated art at NAMOS, a museum that never really found its footing in Indianapolis. Context mattered to me while looking at the Russell Young prints at the Conrad and the sphinxlike sculpture at the JW Marriott.  And context mattered to me when viewing Hammond’s work, having just seen Sonya Clark’s spectacular Madam Walker portrait with its unity of conceptual and media elements, in a venue that has received public financing from the city of Indianapolis.
Despite mixed feelings about The Alexander’s collaboration with the Indianapolis Museum of Art—which seemed to reflect both the diversity and confusion of the contemporary art world—I very much want to meet some of The Alexander artists some of whom were going to be at the Grand Opening celebration at the hotel, on Saturday, February 23. But I wish that it had been open to the public so that Indy taxpayers—black and white and other—could have had a chance to talk to the artists participating in this groundbreaking art museum/hotel collaboration that they helped to finance.

Postscript: Because I had managed, because of my work as a freelancer writing about art for Indy-based NUVO Newsweekly, to receive an invite.  I was not able to attend, however because I was scheduled on a closing shift that night.

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