Click on photos to enlarge.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Neon Art

Copyright, Jim Lane
Open...Ouvert...Aperto...Geoffnet, Pompidou Center, Paris.
The letters are available
individually...write your own
message in neon.
This past May, in paying a visit to Paris' Pompidou Center, the first installations presenting itself as I entered was a wall of neon signs featuring the word "open" in four different languages (above). The message, aside from the obvious, is a plea to open ones mind to creative endeavors that are often outside traditional definitions of art. More than any other museum in Paris (which is saying a lot), the Pompidou is the bright and shining light of such art--in this case, the bright and shining light of neon. It's an science less than a hundred years old, and a medium which has only in the past fifty years freed itself somewhat from the burden of advertising signage to exalt in neon for the sake of neon. Though, even today, still heavy with written words message art, neon artists are daily discovering its potential for sheer visual effect.

I Dream of Sleep, Tracey Emin. (Don't we all.)
Mixed Messages
Perhaps the queen of neon message art is England's Tracey Emin (above). In American, Jenny Holzer holds much the same title, though with a less strident accent and less neon gas. But Doug Wheeler's recent display in the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego (below), also demonstrates the power of neon where no message whatsoever presents itself, at least not in an obvious manner. In wheeler's work, the message is more visceral, a feeling of being a part of the art, disorienting, disconcerting, dismaying, distressing, and even disturbing. And just as disconcerting is the neon "mixed message" I put together from two conflicting neon examples.

Doug Wheeler's disconcerting neon installation, Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego.
Times Square--it's not art
but it tries hard to be.
Neon has come a long way. Technically it's called cold cathode gas-discharge light, and it first "came to light" during the 1920s when New York City's Times Square welcomed it with open arms. Today, Times Square neon has "gone digital" like everything else, but the message is still the same, a SCREAM of commercial enterprise so cacophonous it can't be heard over its own volume. Away from the big city, and well up through most of the 20th-century neon developed as a virtual synonym for cheap and tacky. Nothing looked so cheap that it couldn't be made to look still cheaper with the addition of a gaseous neon glow (below). From Las Vegas to Los Alamos the slender glass tubes, often twisted into crude words and lewd pictures became a hallmark of the era.

The small city lights--neon in the 50s and 60s.
Mona, Lili Lakich. Elevating neon
or desecrating art?
No single artist changed that. No one artist simply decided one day to embrace the tawdry art medium and try to make it rise above its own tasteless glare. The "message" artists were of little help. What they had to say, though sometimes profound, was often as rude and lewd and crude as the worst big city neon advertising. Neon artists such as Lili Lakich went the route of kitsch, which arguably desecrated great art as in her Mona (left), or succeeds in elevating neon to at least the ground floor of art. Neon artist, Roger Borg chose to bring neon into the realm of interior décor with his colorful Neon Lamp (below, right). Early on, interior designers had embraced old neon signs for their bare walls, only to discover that contemporary artists could render much more attractive wall art without the disturbing "product placement" inherent in signage.

Neon Lamp, Roger Borg.
Message art, unlike neon imagery,
seems to have a limited shelf life.

One sign says it all.

The London Eye--neon comes of age as art--nothing cheap or tawdry here.


No comments:

Post a Comment