The Unbearable Lightness of Neon: Anthony Luensman’s “C A M P G R O U N D” at the Cincinnati Art Museum. A New Year’s Rumination

December 30th, 2014  |  Published in *, December 2014

Anthony Luensman_C A M P G R O U N D_2014_neon, transformers, controllers_45 x 45

I. Man Versus Human Nature.

“C A M P G R O U N D evokes a billboard one may still discover along a country highway. It advertises with the familiar vacation icons of tire swings and sparking campfires. The animated sign promises outdoor escape and primitive comfort against the massive holdings and complexities of civilization. The promise, however, hints at its own future of being unfulfilled as neon displaces ‘nature’ and its white lines outline an artificial landscape.” ―Anthony Luensman

“In the sunset of dissolution, everything is illuminated by the aura of nostalgia, even the guillotine.” ―Milan Kundera, “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”.

“And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” ―William Butler Yeats “The Second Coming”.

®! Say can you possibly see, through the post “paper or plastic” trashpocalypse of this bleary xmas-rush handover, our “All-American Arcadia”, a little bit of diametrically opposed recreational flotsam for some, flashing like an acid-green icy-hot moth-light from the fatal summering shores of this USS Tunnel Vision’s last internal combustion cruise? May I have your apprehension please, Ladies and Gents, Boys and Girl Scouts as I present to you in all its faded gory (sic): “The Our Town ©ampground!” Just take an extreme left past this tattered curtain fringe of our civilization and its winter of discontents, all-that what’s skirted there by the thinning Tannenbaums, their broken limbs barely able to veil that old familiar flickering sign of Human Progress: The Lyin’ in Winter -spot lit over there in the third ring of hell and out prowling for his daisy-laced fields of manifest destiny at the Hooverville Hooters, catching some arena sports on the flat screens, crouching in that midnight special shoulder-hunched hand-gun clenched anticipation of an even more insidious bread and circuses roundup announcement yet to come:

“It’s a Getaway Destination for The Staycation Generation. Just call the 1-800-CAM-JUNG hotline right now and have your cultural archetypes titillated anytime day or night. Free and open to the Re-Public, because remember: This Contraband is Your Land, This Contraband is My Land…”

From the tire swinging somersaults, to the sparking campfires, to the lakeside beaches, dredged up by the Army Corps of Engineers with surplus equipment from “Operation Enduring Freedom”, all this symbolic vacating beckons so appealingly to US when we’re so raked across that rapid-fire plethora of can’t-handle-the-truth potholes we hit while barreling down this mortal coil of road, although even that ominous sign for “The Last Stop Before Walt Disney’s Wasteland”, let’s call it the “The Gilded Baits Motel-Museum”, can look quite appealing in comparison to such an earthly decampment, to some of us at least. The flashing “vacancy” has the soft-lapping sell of unconsciousness raising, a choose your poison surge on the rising tide of a nearly irrepressible guilt and temptation from de-basement, with an unabashed flasher’s pendulous hypnosis no less -this rocking back and forth some-thing we just can’t seem to turn our heads away from when such marketed lasciviousness is splish-splashed so lavishly-slavishly upon the endless willy-nilly walls of labyrinthine LED and neo-neon red-hot HD billboards that immure us to our long slushy gridlocked rat-martyr marathon, till that one day we might just finally lash out in animalistic revulsion, just before it’s too late, just like in the late-night movies.

Meanwhile…the overripe cheesy hopes and dreams of that comfy granola crunch vestige of nature vs. culture draws us further in, sniff-sniffing at the preservation of that grand ole Norman Rockwellian Frontierialism, the naked un-be-cuming attractors lining the long paths of the velvet revolution’s underground museumausoleum, devoted to an endangered speciousness: How the Wild West/ Ancient Near East Was (ur) Stolen, those Grand Ur-Myths of The Golden Age, The Glory Days, and The Revolutions of Great Generations playing more and more to a Vacant Drive-In Movie Theater nowhere near you -which would, in this case at least, be currently showing- for a limited run only mind you:

II. “Monster Nature 2: The Simulacrum”.

“And all that was hidden burning on the oil-stained earth

They feed they Lion and he comes.” ―Phillip Levine, “They Feed They Lion”

“Why? Why? Tell ‘Em That It’s Human Nature.” ―Michael Jackson, “Human Nature”.

“Many examples of Camp are things which, from a ‘serious’ point of view, are either bad art or kitsch.” ―Susan Sontag “Notes on Camp”.

EXT: NIGHT: CAMPGROUND: A rather weirdly realm, denuded of most of those All-Natural environmental dangers and instincts nowadays, (Natives, Wildlife, Native Wildlife, etc.) except for the star of our film: an itinerant looking 1/16th ©herokee Neo-Noir Kali-like serial killer nick-named “Pokemanhauntus” by the FBI profiler geeks (O Shigeko Kubota, what she can do with a joystick!) who are on a relentless pursuit to stop her relentless pursuit. She’s the one with the dentata and her feeding and sex drives all criss-crossed by “The Braintrust” who cobbled her Double-Agent Special K-addled Mutant Black Ops Undercover Mission together…and this 21st Century PromeSheus Unleashed has just oh-so-unfortunately happened across your very own UGG Luxury-Deluxe TepeeTent™ while she was out here innocently searching for her long lost “Booty”, that rabid rescue-dog pit-boodle she left abandoned -yet still uneaten- back then when she ran out of money on the run during the not so long-gone but nearly undead War vs. Peace born boom-and-bust bout with “The Great White Recession” -a TKO if there never wasn’t…3…2…1…and…®! Wait…

Yes, a flashback to the tire swing left a-swaying all noosey-goosey in the dark after our strangely addictive Heroine finished some ritualistic baptismal skinny dipping cleanse underneath…mumbling “Abu Ghraib” to herself all the while…the tire swing: that perfectly physical, even sculptural, realization of an exclamation point -the real punctuation of this summery rumination -a symbolic circle of life formed by the by-product we draw from both the dawn of man’s ingenuity and the earth’s fiery core in an alchemy of all the latest cutting-edge Cialis™ sponsored technologies that the Freudi-Man ID can muster to penetrate -and often spill- the deeply petrified fossil remains once wombed in a million year-old petroleum and blood-anointed Mid-Eastern well, making this archetypal throwaway O so impressively laden with eons of life-support for our gas guzzling gridlock -but O so miraculously light and nearly imperishable really- unless set alight in our soon to be woodless campfires, I guess. The strange fruit of all this ingenuity -buy the buy- is also so unbearably easy to lynch up by limb and left ticking o’er the gently lapping and placid lake, a pendulous time-bomb drawn slowly down to a breathless R.I.P in the haloed half-life gravity of it all…after a day of harmless radioactive police cordoned off and sun-blistered fun of course…

®! Yes, just relax! US of the heads down -yes sir- gazing at the Inexhaustible ©ampfire app, trying to escape from those insomniac Big Apple app cities that never can sleep…let’s just try and make it back to home and hearth tonight safe and sound and in no way even think about stopping by those chilling fields on a snowy evening. No, no… Let’s nostalgitize™ ourselves against the encroaching darkness by building a fire with our quick start Joan of Arc Firelogs, toasting our ground up tongue-n’-cheek hot dogs to Old Long Sin. That’ll shut out the shades of sinister giggling -fight campfire with campfire I say- the hungry secret surveillance gawkers openly groping Pokemanhauntus out there under their decrepit camouflaged dock that’s hiding the “Boat Club Bunker Underground”, and who are watching Our Town -playing now on all monitors- roil away on the waves of our self-censor-shipping, expedited by a consumptive complacence -consumption once being a romantic disease you didn’t really want to catch of course, but now the conspicuous catch-all bedrock of our financial flying trapeze act. Nothing that will bomb us back to the Flintstones trying to spark campfires, I guess. No Bam-Bam and Whimper, these synthetically sublimated embers of our freedom and virtue-lism will never really dim for US, the luminescent keepers of the eternal flames of a truly endless summer warming into which the angry moths will do what comes so naturally to them I suppose: that whirligig Saint Vitus’ Dance kamikaze-dive into whatever unbearable lightness they can find.

III. “Why? Why?”

“Over the light bulbs there’s all these dead moth wings, and I … hate that. Such a sadness; there must surely be something to do with that. I tenderly picked them out and start pasting them onto a strip of film, to try to… give them life again, to animate them again, to try to put them into some sort of life through the motion picture machine.” ―Stan Brakhage on “Mothlight”.

“It is also possible that Wenceslaus, wanting to convert his subjects to Christianity more easily, chose a saint whose name (Svatý Vít in Czech) sounds very much like the name of Slavic solar deity Svantevit.” ―Wikipedia, “St. Vitus Cathedral”.

“And the people bowed and prayed to the neon god they made” ―Simon & Garfunkel, “The Sound of Silence”.

“Unlike our grandparents, we live in a world we ourselves made. Until about fifty years ago, images of Nature were the keys to feeling in art. Nature – its cycles of growth and decay, its responses to wind, weather, light, and the passage of the seasons, its ceaseless renewal, its infinite complexity of form and behavior on every level, from the molecule to the galaxy – provided the governing metaphors within which almost every relationship of the Self to the Other could be described and examined. The sense of natural order, always in some way correcting the pretensions of the Self, gave mode and measure to pre-modern art. ”

―Robert Hughes, “The Shock of the New” (1980).

The other night, while riding the buzz home to avoid the holiday breathalyzer traps after an alcohol sodden holiday-work party, the driver swept US up past the corner of Cincinnati’s very own “Learning from Las Vegas” casino experiment to where I finally saw “C A M P G R O U N D” emerge from probably its most important perspective as a public art piece, and maybe the only perspective I hadn’t seen it from yet: far away on the museum’s hilltop, skirted by trees. If I hadn’t caught it then, out of the corner of my eye, I might have missed it from that vantage point all-together, as it sits there like a sudden star-bright mirage, on some lonesome height, overlooking our fair city. I thought about what the people on the bus, the majority of them the “working poor” and their children, who will most likely ride this route nearly every night ad infinitum, might think about the piece. Would they, as those night riders most likely to become a consistent audience during optimal viewing hours over the next few year’s of time-being that the piece is up, be “in the know” enough to get  “C A M P G R O U N D”  as  ART, a “plein air” piece more accessible than most of the works hidden beyond what can often be, to the uninitiated at least, the rather stultifying, and sometimes well-deserved, perception of securitized/ hands-off cultural appropriation and sometimes snobbery the Museum is trying so hard to shake off in an era when the mass media has far surpassed -at least in terms of asses-in-seats attention grabbing line, shape and form- those re-educational goals of even the most altruistic artistic treasurers? How to disrupt this massive “transverse orientation”  -that appropriate scientific nomenclature given to the somehow still un-evolved moth’s compulsion to dive into a flame brighter than moonlight- an analogous impulse in quite a few of US humans, given to swarm around the lowest common denominator of that ever-bright “24/7 Broadcast Cycle in the Sky”, which can often block out even the brightest stars. How can all those channels of hypnotically pulsating frames per second be deflected by the gift of a rather cerebral Trojan Horse, a Mister Art Ed whose waving his hoof goodbye as many of our elected US Senators throw him wholesale onto the dog meat conveyor belt because his particular STEM cells are useless for producing the next engineers of “Our Gate Society.”

In this sense, and as an answer to that implicit question of what can be done about ART as a masses ass-in-seat attractor, the sheer and literally invisible noble gas-ignited brilliance of “C A M P G R O U N D” is a given; the implicit visual puns of tire swing, noose, halo, etc… ur…maybe not as much to the naked I…that rabbit hOle it asks us to run down, that of the hypnotic neon fire-signifiers and supernormal stimuli built of an electrified atmosphere framed by the promises of an Id-Ad or the escapist nostalgia of a foggy window escapade at the Drive-In when everything went so secretly and awkwardly perfect inside, while the endless Slasher flick of life went on outside…well, on average, I’d say, for the most part, these and other more subtle double entendre epitomes are maybe lost on most, even to those of us in the “art crowd”, without quite a bit of artist and art speak coaxed-out rumination, I’d guess. No, these initial signifiers of the piece: tire swing, campfire, billboard, drive in movie screen, and their more complex underlying resonances, might not make it across so explicitly when depicted in such minimalist line-forms: quite a few apparently thought the piece a literal metaphor-swinging wrecking ball, destructed stack of shambles and all- for the tearing down and rebuilding of the west-wing of the Cincinnati Art Museum. The thing is, in the deconstructed world of  “C A M P G R O U N D” as art-archetype, this interpretation works as well, and bolsters its appeal as a kind of collective memory floating by frozen forced perspective in a sort of crystallized space-time. It is open to several interpretations, but not in the random way a Rorschach test might prove to be, but in the way minute cultural patterns are captured by myth, framed and re-presented in that ever shrinking valance of somewhat unadulterated “Fine Art”, if there ever was such a thing.

Of course, some other “quite a few” sometimes don’t give the same “free pass” to New Media as Fine Art as they might to more traditional and rather baseline displays of hand craft and talent, say those made by the clan of the painted public mural -although neon, unbeknownst to most, falls into quite the crossover category all its own: that of the industrial hand-made: its bends and torques are almost entirely hand-crafted and glass blown by real human breath, and Luensman has certainly lighted out to this New Media frontier in these-here parts, almost single-handedly no less, although I would conjecture that if the Public Art funding communities would strike out a bit more into the wilderness of other multi-media practitioners out there, they just might find a few other projects as inherently fascinating and maybe as worthwhile as “CAMPGROUND”. Luckily we have Luensman staking some claims for us in this territory at least…

Meanwhile…yes, neo-neon can almost seem a passé staple of Electronic Art when overshadowed by the accomplishments of the Avant-Garde Internationale represented in Big Towns, yet this “passé” still seems quite appropriate to “C A M P G R O U N D” -I’d venture to say… AND rather cutting edge here in a place where “everything happens 10 years later” as Twain may or may not have quipped about our apocryphal city, during a Civil War that might have very well impaled this grand US experiment on the bayonet of the original sin of Othering no amount of escapism will (hopefully) ever erase. Along these lines, and by some further bending over backwards I guess, I could certainly draw an analogy between Luensman’s work in “C A M P G R O U N D” and Twain’s ability to reveal deeper truths that are crouched in waiting for US behind a kind of innocent, almost white-washed picket-fence of nostalgia couched in the endless summers of youth. This literary analogy between Luensman/ Twain I would diametrically oppose to analogous comparisons to possibly the one and only other relatively well-known practitioner in Neon Art, Bruce Nauman, whose lit up word games smack more of Beckett’s brand of Existentialism than the escapes of yesteryear Luensman evokes.

Which brings me to my final inherently world-wide-web hive-mind inspired punning leap, which I’d like US to make here, by light-heartedly branding this more recent branch of Luensman’s work as a kind of “Sexistentialism” (yes it’s already a twitter account) -a sort of titillating philosophical stance realized in beautifully wrought works that awe one smartly while lounging, in a tantalizingly refined pose, next to the scantily clad camp where thrill water’s run deep. Such work lures US because of Luensman’s deftly aesthetic use of those unusually reengineered electronic attractors that fortunately, in his hands at least, smack less of the compulsion of the mothlight and more of that jounce from the butterfly effect: a gesture where very small changes in initial conditions can (hopefully) create significantly different outcomes. In such a world of impermanence and flux as this, such a windmill of semi-empowered flutters may be the most any of US, grounded by the gravity of a failing star, can hope to wish upon.

–Regan Brown

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