CINCINNATI, Ohio — The doors at the top of the gallery steps swing open with a crash. The touring Broadway show is over at the adjacent performing arts hall, and the matinee crowds pour into the Alice F. and Harris K. Weston Art Gallery, a massive glass box situated on a busy street corner in downtown Cincinnati, Ohio.
They’re in a hurry, these Blue Man Group faithful, heading to nearby garages, but many stop for photos and others stay and linger over Taint, a sprawling exhibition by artist Anthony Luensman featuring large-scale sculpture, photography, and video spread over the gallery’s two floors.
It’s a sunny Saturday afternoon, and the crowds gather around Spiracles, three towering light sculptures between 12 and 18 feet tall, suspended from the gallery ceiling. The towers are made of white neon rings designed by Luensman, plus exposed cables, power outlets, and monofilament that give the sculptures a roughhewn appearance; they sync perfectly with the nearby readymade sculptures: “Freezer Curtain,” a 12-foot industrial freezer curtain jeweled with aluminum rivets, its PVC strips sealed into a single sheet; “Theater Curtain,” a series of pull chains dipped in rubber and strung from an aluminum strut; and “45-45,” comprised of 45 seven-inch acrylic discs covered in the ground shavings of pink erasers and attached to the gallery’s stone wall.
The sunlight catches the theater curtain — part theater screen, part strip-club decoration — and brings out hints of lavender and gold in addition to the chains’ crimson red.
The sculptures are eye-catching, but the standout works at street level are the three double-sided video projections titled “ASFALLSBUKKAKESOFALLSBUKKAKEFALLS,” a series of still images edited into thirty-second loops of varying speeds. The images show close-ups of handsome young men while a white-gloved hand (Luensman’s) playfully caresses their faces.
The Weston is exhibition space as passageway. It attracts dedicated visitors as much as casual passersby heading home from touring Broadway shows — the latter sometimes unprepared for what they may see and unaware of the sly, sexual humor behind much of Luensman’s work, especially “ASFALLSBUKKAKESOFALLSBUKKAKEFALLS.”
During an earlier visit to the show, Luensman had explained that he intentionally kept the gallery wall clean of placards providing titles and explanation. He doesn’t want visitors to know that “ASFALLSBUKKAKESOFALLSBUKKAKEFALLS” is meant to be the most gentle and caring expression of Bukkake one could ever imagine, or that the idea behind the Spiracles is streams of ejaculation.
Luensman, a tall, pale blonde and Cincinnati native who comes off as a poster child for the Queen City’s strong German heritage, wants Taint to be as soft-spoken and as subtle as he is.
“I really spent a lot of time on the exhibition design to determine how people move through the space and how to make the floors work together,” Luensman told me. “I thought, how can I make all these different media live together? It’s quite challenging to make sculpture live with photography and installation.”
In terms of place, but also with regards to innovative spirit, Taint is at the center of FotoFocus, a new biennial and citywide festival celebrating photography.
Under the leadership of James Crump, chief curator at the Cincinnati Art Museum, and with the support of the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC), Cincinnati, FotoFocus debuted this month with exhibitions at more than fifty locations around the city. The festival officially runs through October 26, but many of the spotlight exhibitions, including the installation Gravity of Light by sibling artists Doug and Mike Starn, the CAC show Image Machine: Andy Warhol and Photography, and Taint remain open through the end of the year.
Taint is also something of a homecoming for Luensman, best known for his solo show Ersilia at the Museum of Contemporary Art Taipei as well as an interactive lobby installation at the 21c art hotel in Louisville and the sound sculpture “Singin’ & Ringin’ Chandelier” for architect Zaha Hadid’s building for the CAC, just one block away. With the current show, Luensman continues exploring themes and techniques from Ersilia, including a firm embrace of the growing interdisciplinary nature of photography — an idea that plays a role throughout many of the FotoFocus exhibits.
Downstairs, in the Weston’s lower galleries, is where Taint fully comes alive as a photography exhibition and makes its most powerful impact, thanks largely to a series of dazzling digital images in modest acrylic frames featuring amateur male models. “Candy Neck” shows a man who resembles a younger version of Luensman with ten candy necklaces draped around his neck. On an opposite wall, “Candy Spine” features a gangly man facing away from the camera with candy buttons glued to the glass, forming a colorful spine.
Alongside the photographs, a handful of readymade sculptures lose some of the “wow” factor. “Stud Finder” consists of sprinkles of steel wool attached to a corner wall via applied magnets and looks like the kinkiest men’s room imaginable. “Ladder Nest” is made up of urethane plastic ladders constructed by Luensman and wedged into the gallery ceiling in order to theoretically help break down the barriers between the top and lower floors.
The best example of Luensman’s careful exhibition design and placement of artworks occurs in the back gallery. “Sleeve Totem” stands in the center of a room made cooler by subtle lighting, a 132-inch pole of rubber dildos slid tightly on an acrylic rod. “Sleeve Totem” is the most playful and sly piece in the show, and it’s fun to watch visitors ooh” over the shimmering plastic pole without the slightest hint of recognition.
“Sleeve Totem” also casts connecting shadows across the walls and floor with “Ladder Lake,” a neon ladder that rises from a base of solar salt and bursts through the ceiling, as well as “AKNEEBETWEENKNEES” a long and slender 10-foot-tall photograph mounted on PVC board. The latter piece depicts a variety of men’s knees touching each other, what Luensman describes as a homage to a memory of an early date where he grew excited at the touch of a college classmate’s knees under the table.
The crisscrossing shadows bring to life Luensman’s delicate staging throughout Taint. They also suggest future sparks of creativity as he embraces the FotoFocus mission of pushing the digital boundaries of photography while maintaining a connection to the plastic arts.
“Becoming a digital-media artist has its advantages,” Luensman said. “You can work out of your very small space but still create large installations. I think it’s opening a lot of possibilities, but I don’t think it will ever lose the tangible or the concrete object, because it’s the visuals that pull people into a show. It’s the seductiveness of materials.”
“With video projections,” he continued, “the content can be seductive, but the actual wall of projection is not very seductive to me. I guess that’s why I’m interested in the rear projections, because it becomes more of an object: the inside and outside and the interior and exterior. That kind of projection I enjoy more than walking into a room in a gallery that’s darkened and you stop and stare at a wall.”
Anthony Luensman’s Taint is on view at the Weston Art Gallery (650 Walnut Street, Cincinnati, Ohio) through December 9 as part of FotoFocus. The festival runs through the end of October at various venues throughout Cincinnati.