Cultural colors 

An exhibit at 21c Museum Hotel explores the intricacies of pop culture.

click to enlarge “Lisa” by Hassan Hajjaj. - 21C MUSEUM HOTEL / PROVIDED
  • 21c Museum Hotel / provided
  • “Lisa” by Hassan Hajjaj.

Beaming with color and vibrant décor, the walls of the museum located in 21c Museum Hotel Oklahoma City offer viewers a unique way to explore a variety of issues prevalent in our modern social structure. Through the lens of popular culture, Pop Stars! Popular Culture and Contemporary Art features contemporary artists from around the world who take their audience on a reflective journey through past and present, providing a means by which we can better understand the evolution of culture in a society dominated by consumerist ideals.

“The imagery of manufactured fantasy is reframed in the visual language of historical iconography in this multi-media exploration of popular culture today,” wrote Alice Stites, Pop Stars! exhibit curator. “As the real and the virtual increasingly collide, boundaries between art and media further blur. … Appropriating images and practices from commerce, science, politics, religion, sports and technology, these artists illuminate recent shifts in how culture is being created and consumed.”

In a display of over 100 pieces utilizing a diverse set of media ranging from film and audio to painting and sculpture, those who attend will be challenged to look past the aesthetics in order to appreciate a deeper message that might either be hidden or otherwise unexpected.

In a piece by R. Luke DuBois titled “(Pop) Icon: Britney,” the artist focuses on the darker side of celebrity worship, clearly giving way to religious sentiment. After stripping an audio sample of her work from all backing instruments, the singer’s voice was played back in a church known for its collection of Byzantine icons in Ravenna, Italy. The resulting soundtrack, which fills the space in a muffled albeit ethereal fashion, accompanies a compilation of the pop star’s images centered in an ornate frame.

Regarding the hidden dimension many of these pieces possess, the images are actually a decade’s worth of her film mash-ups run through a surveillance software program used by U.S. Intelligence to track down Osama Bin Laden. The irony is the use of top-notch technology to pinpoint an individual who would never need to be found. As a celebrity, her whereabouts are almost always known.

Works with similar messages are scattered throughout the gallery, and many have stood the test of time, having been a part of the display since the original Pop Stars! opened in Durham, North Carolina, in the spring of 2015.

Typically, each show remains on display at a 21c Museum Hotel location no longer than nine months. When that time is up, the exhibition rotates to another 21c locations, sometimes including a host of new additions. These newer works are carefully chosen to accommodate the theme of the sections present within the overall display.

“We live in a world that’s changing very quickly, and therefore, if we want the exhibition to be relevant, we need to then include new artworks or change artworks that make sure that the ideas that are being presented are up to date and relevant,” Stites said.

The exhibit’s relevancy is echoed by others who have a close relationship with pieces featured in the presentation.

“I appreciate how relevant the exhibition is,” said Michaela Slavid, museum manager of 21c Museum Hotel Oklahoma City. “It’s about popular culture and contemporary art, and popular culture is just ubiquitous today. You can’t really stray far from it.”

Stites mentioned an important piece she recently added to the sports section. “If it Must be Love, Let it Brand the Soul,” a piece by Brazilian artist Alexandre Mazza, is a high-definition production featuring a boxer decorated in the garb of a veteran fighter who spars himself instead of another man after realizing he is his own greatest opponent.

“It has this ritualistic feeling that he is engaging in some sort of self-purging or inner struggle search for transcendence,” Stites said. “So it also has a kind of spiritual quality that links it to some of the other works in the sports section.”

In this rendition, the sports section has been expanded upon.

“[It elucidates] how we treat sports figures and this contemporary obsession with athletes that also is combined with the way that athletes are asked to sacrifice so much of their lives, their privacy and then even their bodies,” Stites said. “There are several works that draw parallels between the way that especially African-American athletes are once revered when they’re on the court or on the field but are also still often targets of discrimination and violence.”

Accessible art

In a museum of this size, there is ample opportunity to incorporate messages such as these. Which messages to convey and with what art, however, poses its own set of challenges. Since its debut, Stites has included even more pieces outside the realm of sports, dealing with topics of consumption and technology and how our social landscape is changed by the evolution of these cultural components.

With over 4,300 square feet of space, another complication arises. Tackling the issue of making everything fit can be just as daunting, especially in the limited time they have to set up the display. Though they try to have everything cleared out and the next exhibit ready to be viewed in a matter of 10 days, a high level of efficiency is required and is expected to be maintained.

Considering the structure of the museum’s architectural components is just one of the many pieces to this puzzle. For example, Brian Paumier’s piece “An Act of Faith” is a large, intimate work he created after returning home from his tour in Iraq, one that he will certainly never forget. Hanging the piece on a rounded wall presented a bit of a challenge due to the multiple-image format, but with a little creativity and some thoughtful planning, the matter was resolved.

Titus Kaphar’s “Ascension” combines a silhouette - of Michael Jordan with Rogier van der Weyden’s - “The Descent from the Cross.” - 21C MUSEUM HOTEL / PROVIDED
  • 21c Museum Hotel / provided
  • Titus Kaphar’s “Ascension” combines a silhouette of Michael Jordan with Rogier van der Weyden’s “The Descent from the Cross.”

“It’s very hard to find artwork that looks good on the rounded wall,” Stites said. “But when you have a piece that comes in multiple small squarish or rectangular pieces, it takes a long time but it looks really great. And it really activates that space beautifully.”

Taking into account the depth of the story behind the work, coupled with its beauty and its message, Stites believes it was worth the challenge.

Creating a space that takes people on a journey that appeals to more than sight alone is an achievement.

“That’s what I think about a lot … which artworks to put together in which exhibition to stimulate an interesting conversation and that will [be] interesting and related when you hang them together on walls or place things together in the same place,” Slavid said.

According to Slavid, this has already been a reality since the gallery opened at 21c in Oklahoma City. Giving at least two tours per week, she has a personal conversation with at least one person each time over some aspect of the exhibit.

“Honestly, the reaction to the exhibition provides a metaphor for the exhibition itself just because people are drawn in,” Slavid said. “And so I think this really makes the artworks on view accessible; it really leads to a heightened engagement with the artwork, and from that, it’s much easier to really start thinking about what each artist has to say.”

Because each piece has a meaning of its own, it might be difficult to grasp the concept behind each and every one. Stites hopes the audience will at least walk away understanding there is a very real connection between art, everyday life and the ideals that surround us.

“What we see on the street, on our screens, in everyday life are subject matters that are valid for making thought-provoking contemporary art that has a relationship to the canon of art history and that can reveal and reflect some of the most important ideas happening all around us and make us more aware of what is happening in culture and society today,” Stites said.

Pop Stars! Popular Culture and Contemporary Art will be on display until February 2019. Admission is free.

Visit 21cmuseumhotels.com

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