An orange-tinged snow moon hangs wide over Cincinnati and illuminates the night, one cold and windy enough to be February-worthy. Shelter from the cold is necessary, and a Monday evening option is free admission to downtown's Contemporary Arts Center (CAC). One natural response after entering the glass-and-concrete lobby is to sit down on one of 10 cement blocks gathered around the black stairwell in back and rub one's hands for heat in front of Tony Oursler's bulbous video sculpture "Blown." It's a surreal equivalent to the Yule log videos that people without fireplaces in their homes play on their televisions. Like those flickering images, any warmth generated is pure imagination.
Two eyes flicker from a woman's face projected onto the large Fiberglas sphere tucked beneath the stairwell. The face sits where one might consider as the second toe from the right, the sculpture resembling a bent foot -- or maybe they're knuckles on a hand.
Still, it's a mesmerizing image, accentuated by the video's unearthly green glow. It's something one could sit and watch for a long time.
Christmas lights twinkle in the trees across Walnut Street, but few people are around to enjoy the sight. The museum isn't crowded -- it's a Monday night after all. But whatever activity exists downtown seems to be focused at the CAC
Oursler's video sculptures, four of them tucked away in various corners of the CAC's lobby, provide constant chatter via the loudspeakers that accompany the handheld video projectors.
"Cloud" (2004) is the size of a puffy lamp and stands near the lobby's back elevator. Oursler projects a spider-like set of three women's eyes for eerie effect. It's the perfect companion to "Blown" (2005), a set of electronic sisters constantly chattering away at each other via their sound loops.
Tucked above the tiny hallway that splits the lobby, "Keep Going" is a cloth dummy with a jacket, pants and pillow-like head that holds a projected face. Its plaid pants and loud jacket match the vaudeville-inspired chitchat audio track that Oursler created for the 1995 video sculpture.
The light makes a glowing halo effect on the ceiling space above the cloth dummy. It's accidental, a result to the tight space, but a wonderful touch to the piece. It's as if the carnival barker banter is coming from God.
Oursler's fourth video sculpture, "Insomnia," a stack of pillows piled against a Citizen video projector, was out of order on the night I visited, but the lobby was no less alive.
Vibrant, significant art has replaced the coffee kiosk that used to occupy the space. While I love coffee, I'd prefer installations by Oursler every time. I can always bring my own coffee.
The eyes from Oursler's three operating video sculptures are watching lobby passersby, and it's anyone's guess what will happen next at the CAC.
The search for a new senior curator continues, someone to oversee exhibitions and related creative programs. Former CAC Senior Curator Thom Collins has already left one job, executive director of Baltimore's Contemporary Museum, to become director of the Neuberger Museum of Art at Purchase College, State University of New York, the leading arts center of Westchester County, N.Y.
Meanwhile, on a cold Cincinnati night, the bloom begins to fade slightly from the CAC's sleek concrete and glass exterior. Architecture fans still celebrate the CAC, in the words of The New York Times, "the most important American building to be completed since the end of the Cold War," but the building's limelight is over.
It's time for new, post-millennium, radical art to gather attention for what happens inside, not just the museum's exterior. Imagine what a senior curator, someone convinced to give Cincinnati a try, can do with this building.
Tony Oursler's video sculptures, a welcome exchange from a coffee bar, prove that change can be good.
Contact steve ramos: sramos(at)citybeat.com