Opening Thursday, Aug. 13

21c Museum Hotel

111 Corcoran St., Durham


A visual art exhibit about “seeing” sounds redundant. But Seeing Now, which opens this week at Durham’s 21c Museum Hotel, underscores how much more there is to the act of looking than rods and cones reacting to light.

The 21c concept merges a contemporary art museum with a boutique hotel and restaurant. The Durham location opened in March, in the Art Deco fortress of the historic Hill Building, with the exhibit Pop Stars! Popular Culture and Contemporary Art. The show that will replace it, Seeing Now, comes to Durham from the 21c flagship in Louisville, Kentucky, though additions to the museum’s collection and differences in the site mean that it contains some new pieces. About 40 works by more than two dozen international artists, in virtually every medium, are included.

“How we see things determines what we see and the judgements we make,” explains Alice Gray Stites, chief curator for all 21c Museum Hotels. “In what ways have how we see things changed in the 21st century?”

Because the museum never closes, installation takes place in full view of patrons. A week before the opening, Stites is in town to oversee it. Formerly an adjunct curator at Louisville’s Speed Art Museum, she was asked by 21c founders Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson, whose collection feeds the museums, to curate the Louisville location’s inaugural exhibit in 2006. Then Stites joined the staff when 21c began to expand into other cities four years ago.

“I had complete faith in it because I know the collectors and their passion for sharing thought-provoking contemporary art with the public,” says Stites, who has an alert and almost imperceptibly amused slate-blue gaze. “A restaurant and museum was the right marriage of commerce and culture because they didn’t want to build a private museum that depended on tax dollars or donations. A big part of the model is increasing accessibility to art. How do we remove the velvet rope, make a serious place for art that’s welcoming and not intimidating, and make it free?”

Each 21c has three main features. There are permanent site-specific works installed as the building is renovated. In Durham, they include Andrew Erdos’ video projections of skies on cloud-shaped mirrors, which lead you up the central stairwell. There are events, from artist talks to film screenings, developed in Durham by museum manager Jeff Bell, who was poached from CAM Raleigh. And there are large rotating exhibits, drawn from the museum’s extensive holdings and borrowed, which travel around with city-specific alterations.

“With contemporary art, there’s often an opportunity to respond directly to current events,” Stites says. “We call it copy-morph, not copy-paste.”

In a traditional contemporary art museum, the works are destinations. People who see them are actively seeking provocation. 21c, on the other hand, connects modern art with people who may only be looking for a novel boutique-hotel experience. But Stites bristles at the notion that this public quality might limit her curatorial purview.

“Absolutely not,” she says. “That’s actually the biggest misconception that, well, journalists have. We curate the exhibitions to be articulate, challenging, engaging and start conversations, just as you would in a museum. In fact, you have more leeway to challenge the public because people don’t always come in with a point of view that’s already been formed.”

Some of the most challenging and provocative pieces in Seeing Now use technology to confront issues of social, regional and economic identity. They sharply point out how seeing depends on where you stand.

Stites considers Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s “Zero Noon” the crux of the show. It’s a digital clock that displays frequently refreshing statistics from the Internet. As Stites points it out, it offers the mysterious information “Toyota 238.” Though hardly ravishing to behold, the stream of data, often meaningless when stripped from context, is hypnotic.

“It looks like a computer screenwhat we look at most of the time,” Stites explains. “We’ve become consumers of visual information rather than observers.”

In Hank Willis Thomas’ digital print “Baron of the Crossroads,” the artist Sanford Biggers is painted half black and half white. Specially treated Plexiglass acts like a lenticular lens, so that he looks white or black depending on which side you stand on. A straight-on view produces a blur.

Norbert Brunner does something similar but takes on our moment’s narcissism instead of its cultural divisions. A pair of eyes and the title, “You Are Enchanting,” stare back at you from a mirror. But the words are only legible if you stand directly in front of it.

“If you move to the side, you are no longer enchanting,” Stites says.

Another powerful Thomas piece, “And I Can’t Run,” appears blank until you take a flash photograph, which reveals a 20th-century image of a public whipping. Indeed, the phone is a prominent presence in Seeing Now. You might feel annoyed at whomever’s cell keeps going off until you walk around a corner and discover that it’s part of the show. Rachel Lee Hovnanian’s installation “Dinner For Two” features a table set with a wedding cake and two chairs holding computer screens that show a man and a woman, distracted by their constantly chirping phones.

“Walking by this piece, I’ve thought it was my phone many times,” Stites says, with evident satisfaction. “They’re connected, but not communicating.”

A number of pieces in the show have as much to do with what we don’t see as what we do. Spain’s Mateo Maté recreates a 19th-century impressionist painting using the patterns of global military uniforms to describe the shapes, illuminating the invisible opposed forces that overlay everything we see. Lalla Essaydi, who came from a traditional Islamic household in Morocco, photographs women who can barely be seen because their elaborate gowns (made of things such as shell casings) camouflage them into ornate backgrounds.

Nick Brandt photographs taxidermy in the places in Kenya where the animals were poached, restoring living habitats to so-called decorative objects. And Ben Durham renders mug shots as cut-paper street maps of where their subjects come from, illuminating a hidden link between environment and criminal punishment.

Throughout all the new-media games, beauty persists, in hand-drawn animation by Belgium’s Hans Op de Beeck that reveals “what we don’t see at night;” Kevin Cooley’s “Controlled Burn” photographs, which render something as evanescent as smoke in gorgeous, heavily draped forms; and German artist Michael Wesely’s long-exposure photograph of the entire life cycle, from bloom to decay, of some flowers. It’s like how a god might see themeverything, all at once.

I had mixed feelings about the first 21c show, which was very lively and included some compelling pieces but sometimes felt self-consciously provocative. That sense was strengthened by the context: This is a venue where even the bathrooms are edgy. You can see into them until the doors are locked and the glass walls frost over.

And I confess I was initially inclined to see the museum-hotel concept as a gimmick. But I had to revise that opinion after seeing this show and hearing about the vision behind it. Seeing Now, which runs for about six months, is a deep investigation of what it means to look (and be looked at) in an age of rampant surveillance and self-curation. It verifies the Durham 21c Museum Hotel as a serious place for contemporary art.

This article appeared in print with the headline “More than meets the eye”