The gallery in the basement of 1924 Main — a new Kansas City restaurant in a storied old building — is one of the city’s few art venues that has the sense to put the overhead lights on a dimmer. Now, this particular basement, known as “the dungeon” when it was home to the raucous Dixie Bell, has a history of dim lighting, though its historical purpose was to protect the innocent. Its current purpose is to create a cozy atmosphere that’s easy on the eyes.
We know what you’re thinking: Bar lighting is great for making serious drinkers look hot, but that’s because you can’t see the havoc that alcohol is actually wreaking on their skin. Looking at art in dim light seems a bit self-defeating.
Brenda Nelson, who curates what’s now called The Cellar, uses track lighting with spotlights. She never hangs more art on the stone, cavelike walls than she has lights to illuminate. Adding candles and a light-up blond onyx bar to the small room, she creates a space that’s inviting and romantic. “These couches are ridiculously comfortable,” she warns. On Friday nights, she tends to get a late crowd made up of singles, drawn by the DJs and subtitled film noir projected onto the walls behind them. Saturday nights are more couply, with dinner dates from upstairs making their way downstairs for chocolate martinis. “They can make out in the corner, and I don’t care,” she says.
But she deserves more of a crowd to appreciate the art.
Visitors are greeted by Karen Schory’s misty-gray industrial beach photographs from Vancouver. They’ve been printed on watercolor paper and treated to look wavy and diluted like watercolors, but the sharp-focus photography results in vivid detail; they capture the mesmerizing allure of the Pacific Northwest. Nick Roberts, a daytime bartender upstairs, has contributed pleasantly layered, gestural paintings for above the sofa. Newcomer Lauren Martin shows a handful of paintings, each depicting a row of naked women. And in a back hallway that might hold some racy memories for old DB patrons, visitors find detailed etchings by student David Grimes.
How does Nelson distance her venue from its salacious past? Happily, she doesn’t. She lets the nostalgic peek at the pantry, which used to hold the circular urinal in the men’s bathroom, and she encourages the same-sex couples who united here to kiss in the spot where they first met.