San Francisco

“Neon” and “Seasonal Luminaries”

Anna Gardner Gallery, Source Gallery

Playing both with and against neon’s association of glitzy signage, a number of artists in the Bay Area manipulate it as their primary expressive material. Two concurrent exhibitions brought together a total of nine sculptors and together amounted to a mini-survey of the local forms of the genre. Effects ranged from kitschy kinetics to radiant icons, demonstrating that when artists get beyond being mesmerized by the sheer dazzle of the charged gas, they continue to produce constructions that are both inventive and evocative.

The seven artists in “Neon” presented the greatest diversity of approaches. Ray Tarp’s hard-edged stripes painted on glass are sequentially notched and stepped so as to make the diagonal line of light behind them appear to bend—a bit of high tech–looking topical trickery of only momentary impact. At the other extreme, Lee Champagne’s compacted assemblage within a Gothic-arched “reliquary” contains neon glowing behind glass painted with sweeping angels’ wings and yin/yang and atomic energy symbols. With classical columns and pediment, broad doors attached in front, a thick edging of encrusted plastic jewels, and a coin slot extending from its glitter-covered base, the piece offers a pungent commentary on the conjunction of religion, commerce, and contemporary spirituality.

Between these polarities of simplistic “no comment” and obsessive message, four sculptors focus on contrasting neon with other textures. Cathy Stone’s dense scribbles in neon don’t make as much sense on a gallery wall as they did when they formed a humorously unintelligible pseudo marquee above a storefront gallery in Sacramento last year. In another work, her gestural lines of neon over painted swathes in the same colors demonstrate an interesting idea weakened by the crude “Abstract Expressionist” brushstrokes. It does not bear the visual and intellectual subtlety achieved by Bill Kane, a significant “missing artist” from this survey, when he juxtaposes sparse neon scribbles over mural photographs of graffiti-marked urban walls.

Ceramist Kathy Erteman produces distinctive textural unions by crossing one diagonal line of neon over a strip of geometrically patterned reflective plastic, both like sparkling jewels on the lusterg laze surfaces of her ovoid porcelain vases. The design radiates a sharp tension which avoids becoming limpid decoration. Another effective contrast of hard and soft shapes and materials, in the “Seasonal Luminaries” show, is Setsuo Hozumi’s layering of loosely hanging sheets of translucent vellum interspersed by thin glass rods: the paper is cut through in organic shapes to reveal zips of neon in the center.

Christian Schiess is the best known of this group, both for his imaginative sculpture and his viewer-responsive neon construction at San Francisco’s Exploratorium. Both these shows included pillows of inflated vinyl, either perpendicularly intersecting or nested and holding geometric neon shapes. Schiess’s Ignipium, 1983, in “Seasonal Luminaries,” presented the most forceful image of all of them. Its silvery translucent pillow contains a grid of four windows encircled by an interior ring of green, orange, and beige light; the whole is suspended within a larger transparent pillow. The play of different densities of light, of pliable and rigid textures, of square and round shapes, as well as the iconic focus of the circle and grid, create an absorbing abstraction; the flamboyance of neon is just one element of its appeal.

Suzaan Boettger