Baton Rouge, LA

Keith Sonnier, Catahoula, 1994, mixed media, neon, found objects, 56 x 29 x 24". From the series “Tidewater,” 1994.

Keith Sonnier, Catahoula, 1994, mixed media, neon, found objects, 56 x 29 x 24". From the series “Tidewater,” 1994.

Keith Sonnier

Louisiana Art and Science Museum

Keith Sonnier, Catahoula, 1994, mixed media, neon, found objects, 56 x 29 x 24". From the series “Tidewater,” 1994.

Keith Sonnier is, along with James Turrell, Dan Flavin, and Robert Irwin, among the artists most associated with the late 1960s realization of light as medium. But whereas the others’ practices have been described as, by turns, expansive, durational, and sublime, Sonnier’s squiggling, whirling oeuvre of neons has long been bracketed as some variation on that annoyingly anachronistic description “drawing in space.” You could call what he makes art—you could also call it an experience—but after all these years, to call Sonnier a “draftsman of light” is to too fluidly assimilate him into the modernist narrative. So who is the underexplored, still-elusive Sonnier? The ironist in glitzy Vegas drag? The video artist? The . . . Louisianan?

Unbelievably, Sonnier (a bilingual Cajun) never had a solo museum exhibition in his home state until this one at the Louisiana Art and Science Museum (LASM). Included (if not “abjected”) in an obscure back room here was an interminable loop of his rarely seen, earnestly experimental videos, an underexplored body of work that deserves a more visible platform. But the LASM show seemed more intent on compensating for Sonnier’s underrepresentation, attaching a suspect sense of localism to a disparate selection culled from five decades’ worth of work.

Highlighting the artist’s romantic side, preferable only to his “ambient” side (typically reserved for public commissions), the best of Sonnier this show was not. It emphasized later worksmade from the mid-’80s on, when his signature style had fully developed but wasn’t necessarily advancing. The groupings of Sonnier’s sculptural work shown here—including pieces from his series “Brazil,” 1985, “Tidewater,” 1994, and “Abri,” 2000tentatively cohered around a dialogue regarding the artist’s post-’70s negotiation of abstraction. The “Brazil” sculptures are large planar faces of dark steel painted in fluorescent hues and speckled with geometric cutouts. Standing on or supported by jazzy zigzagging legs, they approximate a devastatingly misconceived Mark di Suvero/late Warhol collaboration. Nearby, works from the “Abri” series read like hunters’ blinds: In each, ladderlike steps lead from the floor to an elevated compartment or platform. Even at their most abstract, as with Dauralde Abri, 2000, a junk-assemblage perch engulfed by Sonnier’s ubiquitous neon tubing, they remain literal.

In his “Tidewater” series, the artist merges his trademark industrial cool with the discarded waste of industry, and the modesty of these works’ scale and materials lands them more comfortably in Sonnier’s wheelhouse. Made during an unexpected stint in Louisiana while the artist cared for his ailing father, these are marriages of Louisiana junk (plastic containers for antifreeze and cleaning products, rusted metal) to that of New York’s Canal Street (namely, neon). For instance, in Catahoula, 1994, swirling neon tubing is braced by a vertical cone of steel rods vaguely shaped like an oil rig. These are handsome works, but sometimes you want Sonnier’s late sculptures to be less benignly eccentric and more confrontational or bawdy or aggressive or dead serious. As for their local color, Sonnier has repeatedly insisted that his use of neon was inspired by seeing gaudy lights reflecting across Louisiana rice fields, but aside from a few glancing iconographic shards, his work doesn’t read as particularly Louisianan. It might be said that the tone of his late sculptures is emotional abstraction, and that it anticipates a temperament characteristic of the decade just concluded. So with nothing much articulated about his homebound influences, his obscure early videos, or his roughly forty-year devotion to neon, we’re still left with the noncommittally whimsical Sonnier—the same one we already knew about.

Nick Stillman