New York

Keith Sonnier

PaceWildenstein 22

Neon is usually thought of as Keith Sonnier’s “signature substance,” but in Arabic Fringe, 2004, for example, it is only one element in what is essentially a three-dimensional drawing. To the left of two horizontal lines of white neon tubing is, in the same medium, an expressionistic squiggle of red. But there are also the conspicuous black wires (another linear element) that connect them, which dangle with all the graceful insouciance of chance, and the bulky transformer to which they are attached. A wire mesh also links them, holding two little starfish as if in a net—the romantic catch of the day. Two hairy fringes—they look like false eyelashes (a feminine association supported by the warm pink-red light cast onto the wall behind them)—hover in front of the squiggle. In contrast, the white neon lines emanate “masculine” auras of cool turquoise.

Dare one characterize Sonnier as a witty formalist, distilling, fine-tuning, and (with no loss of drama) softening the disconcerting contrasts that define abstract art? And would it be overinterpreting his work to say that it has an affinity with Kandinsky’s early improvisations, a similar (as Wieland Schmid would have it) “apocalyptic” dimension? Arabic Fringe is the sum not only of formal contrasts that add up to an eccentric abstract whole but also of surreal incongruities that generate emotional tension. It is a subtly absurd “poetic object”—a marriage of aesthetic convenience between incommensurate elements.

There is an endearing, amusing quality to Arabic Fringe, but, as its title suggests, it also constitutes an ironic comment on America’s “intervention” in Iraq. The same topic is addressed more explicitly in Baghdad Relic and USA: War of the Worlds (both 2004). The tangle of wires surrounding the central globe in the latter suggests the chaos of the conflict. But the little American flags—one sticking precariously out of the central sphere, the other hanging pathetically from a flowerpot—also function as decorative planes in Sonnier’s preferred colors. There’s something about the way the flags dangle that suggests the futility of the war, but there is a comparable sense of ominous gloom in all of Sonnier’s works. They may be radiant with light but their underlying structure is black, a characteristic that is unavoidable in Doc. Dudley J. Le Blanc, 1994, from the “Tidewater Series.” Here, the found objects, “darkened” by use and age, are like so many bits of dead flesh installed in a skeletal metal frame.

The tension between light and dark lines remains unresolved in Sonnier’s works, giving their spontaneity a tortured look. And perhaps nowhere is the sense of expressionistic self-entanglement more evident than in Bound Saw Palm and Bundle Pack (both 2004), in which black wire and luminous neon each struggle for dominance over the other. This Laocoönesque character, common to all of Sonnier’s work, suggests an elegiac mood arrived at through the use of lyrical decoration.

Donald Kuspit