Art in hotels falls into two major categories: black-and-white photographs of the city you are in, and bright reproduction watercolors of flowers, boats, or beaches. It is a tricky space: we know how austere a room of empty walls feels. At the same time, no one who stays in a hotel wants that space to be strange, challenging, surreal, or otherwise upsetting; so many of the things art often offers are antithetical to the hotel experience.
So with its visual arts program, the Wythe Hotel is following its tried and true pattern: its owners carefully select every object stocked in its rooms as a certain “new Brooklyn”-branded, platonic ideal of itself. The mini bar carries not Hershey’s or Kit-Kat bars, but bars of Mast Brothers chocolate. The wallpaper draws motifs from Brooklyn’s industry and history. No plastic laundry bags, but a blue and white tote bag stamped “Wythe Hotel” for your use. The hand lotion is clementine-scented and free for use but will set you back $27 a bottle if you want to take it home.
Art, an even messier terrain than the fiercely competitive worlds of artisanal chocolates and beauty products, presents a thought experiment in comfort. The Wythe’s art curator, Kimia Ferdowsi Kline, noted that a “hotel is simultaneously a public and private space—it's a very interesting phenomenon to have people from all over the world staying under one roof.” That is, like an airport, it must serve a global, anonymous, mobile middle class. Unlike an airport, its goal is to comfort and please.
Youngna Park; installation view at the Wythe Hotel, photo courtesy Anyssa Samari.
To that end, Kline searched for works with “strong composition and design, a color palette that is harmonious with the color palette already in the hotel rooms (e.g. the wallpaper, the mint green side tables, etc.), and subject matter that is interesting but not vulgar.” It’s an approach that certainly wouldn’t please some purists; think of the scene in Hannah and Her Sisters when the painter Frederick yells at a young collector “This is degrading! You don't buy paintings to blend in with the sofa!” But then, hotels are a business, and the room comes before the work.
So we are offered art that’s easy on the eye and mind. Four artists, all with some connection to Brooklyn or the hotel, were placed in four different rooms and celebrated with an opening. Eventually, all of the rooms in the hotel will be filled this way.
Jing Wei; installation view at the Wythe Hotel, photo courtesy Anyssa Samari.
Jing Wei, who Kline found through Pinterest, created a set of woodcuts that show people at play and travelling. She doesn’t see a strong line between “artistic” and “commercial” work because of the nature of her relation to clients. She noted, “the more digital work you do, the more clients see that, and they ask for the same thing.” The compositions are based on bold shapes; we see figures with nubby forms cooking, lounging, talking. The colors are yellow and pink and teal, almost pastel, like a summer wardrobe or a small town candy store.
There are two photographers: Mikael Kennedy, known for his polaroids and commercial work, and Youngna Park, who has a wide range of photographic practices but here is showcasing her travel-based photography. Both sets of photographs show sun flares and soft palettes, Park’s featuring rivers and great trees far outside the city, while Kennedy’s turn in to reflect on the space itself. Kennedy stayed in a room for two nights on a “residency” for these works. For him, “being in the space is the art, the polaroid is just the documentation.” He found the rooms and hotel inspiring: “I tried not to leave home for the entire time. I would just watch the way the light cut across a chair. It poured one night and I just watched the way the city looked through the rain on the window.”
Mikael Kennedy; installation view at the Wythe Hotel, photo courtesy Anyssa Samari.
Hiro Kurata is the outside choice in the group: his works were recommended by the website 20x200. His paintings tend to be cartoonish depictions of loopy-limbed and often grimacing baseball players. The works on view are prints of his paintings, both showing couples in situations based on his own experiences. He never understood them as works about travel, nor did he think of the two works, made three years apart, as a sequence. But, he said, “the way I paint constantly changes, so even though they’re on the same theme, it’s fun to see them as sequential here.”
None of the artists had any idea how visitors to the hotel would relate to their work, though they were curious. They may never know, unless, like in a gallery, they receive requests for purchases. With the emphasis on “comfort,” the project won’t radically redefine the status of hotel art, but by collaborating closely with working artists, it presents them an exciting space and platform. As Wei said, “I love that people are living with the artwork.”
(Image on top: Hiro Kurata; installation view at the Wythe Hotel, photo courtesy Anyssa Samari.)