Neon: Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue

La Maison Rouge Paris, 17 February–20 May 2012

Review by Victoria Hobday

Fig 8. Bertrand Lavier (1949-) Ifafa V(Stella), 2008, purple and green neon, 191.8 x 348 x 16.5cm, Galerie Yvon Lambert.

Neon has a long association with the streets, with commercial culture and with Paris. In 1902 Georges Claude, one of the founders of the company Air Liquide, discovered that the process of extracting gases such as helium and oxygen from air left behind a number of rare gases. Amongst these gases was neon and argon that when they are contained in a vacuum and an electric current is passed through them produces a glowing red and electric blue light respectively. The first neon sign was erected on the rooftop of a building on the boulevard Champs-Elysées in 1912 and spelt out the word ‘Cinzano’ the first of many signs to illuminate the streets of Paris.

The lights attracted photographers in the 1920s such as Leon Gimpel (1878–1948) who produced early colour photographs (autochromes) of neon lights and film such as Les Nuits Electriques made by Eugène Deslaw (1888–1966). However there was little interest from artists in the medium between 1930 and 1950 apart from single artists who would incorporate the lights into other assemblages, notably one of the earliest individuals was the Czech artist Zdenek Pesanek (1896–1965) whose assemblage of bronze female torsos and neon lights bathed the form in an electric blue light.

One hundred years after the first neon appeared in Paris an exhibition has opened looking at Neon art. Who’s afraid of red, yellow and blue? is laid out in the labyrinth of the Maison Rouge as if one is exploring a small city. (Maison Rouge is a not for profit contemporary art foundation inaugurated in 2004 by Antoine de Galbert.) The rooms flow into and intersect with each other as if streets and all of them vibrate with colour and in some instances the flashing of lights. The more violently flashing pieces such as Francois Morellet’s Neon dans l’espace (1969/96) (Fig. 1) is contained in its own smaller vestibule, partially because it is quite hard on the eyes and partially so that it doesn’t overwhelm other pieces, the hidden but flashing light draws the viewers like moths. The show is not rigidly chronological but a central room at the core of the show is dedicated to the early and seminal works of neon art.

In this main room we see works by artists such as Dan Flavin, Bruce Nauman, Joseph Kosuth and Lucio Fontana who were exploring the medium of illumination in different ways from the 1950s onwards. Fontana brings the medium of light to the work Concetto Spatziale (#65B6) (1965) (Fig. 2) through illuminating the holes in a canvas from the back so that they shine, creating a representation of space that glistens due to the light behind the canvas. Flavin made his ‘icons’ in the early 1960s creating works that were devoid of defined meaning. He described them as ‘ dumb, anonymous and inglorious’ as the arranged florescent tubes resisted narrative or abstracted meaning and instead engaged with the properties of architectural space, arrangement and the pure effects of light.

Flavin’s blocks of domestic florescent lights seem strangely flat when sitting in an exhibition that positively hums with light. I found this odd as usually whenever I have seen his work in past exhibitions I have always been struck by how much they stand out when shown with other contemporary work. However, light or neon is often used in exhibitions a bit like spice added to a meal and in small amounts it has an exotic quality. When a show is based solely upon a single medium such as neon light it flattens the effect of the works. When all that is possible with neon is to bend the tubes it would seem that the possibilities of creating original works or individualising the medium to typify an artists oeuvre are also somehow limited. The works appear to scream out for attention from every corner and every wall, like a playground of noisy children all wanting you to look at them.

Words form the backbone of this exhibition. Many works mine the commercial heritage of the medium that provokes a response based on the early use of neon as a form of advertising. The audience is accustomed to neon advertising something that is desired or well-known, a famous brand, a restaurant’s name, a skipping girl. Therefore when the medium reiterates this with the use of language the artist’s words and ideas are writ large … literally. Sometimes as in the work of Eric Michel, La lumière parle (2011), the works speak about themselves in a circular manner. In others, such as Douglas Gordon’s Everytime you switch me off, we die a little (2011), these words are written in lowercase letters and turns a corner after the comma, playing both with the medium and the double entendre. These textual works are unashamedly concerned with the meaning and directness of words and ideas ‘up in lights’. Jason Rhoades’ Untitled (2004; Fig. 3) is a large work that instead of ignoring or hiding the technology of wiring and transformers, incorporates these elements into the work. Words hang from a large grid of poles that make up a cube the size of a small room and are surrounded by a tangle of red electrical cords, this jumble of neon words illuminate the work as a whole. Below there are items that seem almost an afterthought, a book lies open on a chaise (suggestively shaped like a bicycle seat), small stools are arranged around the central bench, clothes tied into a bundle sit off to one side. The meaning of the words seem random and obscure as if the artist had rescued signs from a variety of venues. In fact these words relate to his famous private events—Black Pussy Cabaret Soirée Macramé—the words all refer to unexpected terms suggested by artist and audience for female genitalia. The result is a chaotic jumble of words that seem completely disparate. Textual works fall back, not suprisingly on much of the literary arsenal of paradox, double entendre, and humour. Kendell Geers work T:error (2003) changes between the word ‘terror’ and then the ‘t’ flashes intermittently like a faulty hotel sign to make the word ‘error’. The red letters and the faulty sign evoke the stock in trade element of horror films while at the same time revealing meaning that is hidden within another word.

The following room concentrates on works that are geometric and emphasise the purity of shape and colour. Laddie John Dill’s Light on the Arno (1971) (Fig. 4) is a line on the wall that elegantly changes colour from the blue on the end through a fine and glowing thread of light in the middle to a pink glow at the other end. The simplicity of this work is immediately pleasing and well placed after viewing so many words and slogans. The focus of this work is the medium itself. The piece defies semiotics and associations and instead demonstrates the beauty of glowing gases in glass tubes. Other geometric works emphasise shapes that are familiar and repeated in daily life, architecture and the natural world. Arcs, cubes and spirals are all represented in two dimensions and some in three or in the case of Ivan Navarro’s Sentinel (2010) (Fig. 5) the lights seem to dissappear down a corridor behind a glass door affixed to the wall. Some of the works trace irregular shapes in space that hang precariously in the middle of the room, these works successfully use the sculptural qualities of neon as they hang from the ceiling and allow the audience to walk around the work as though experiencing a brilliant graphic line drawn in the air.

The show winds through one brilliantly lit room after another, passing through the work by Carlos Cruz-Diez Chromosaturation (1965–2011) (Fig. 6) that uses the coloured light that saturates the three sections to trick your eyes and change the colours that you see as you move from one to another. Following this there is a number of works that reinterpret other artworks, changing them to brilliant phoenix-like versions of their terrrestial selves. Berthan Huws Neon (2007–8) (Fig. 7) appropriates Duchamp’s famous readymade of the bottle rack in glowing red neon, pushing the concept of appropriation of objects into art another step further from the original use and meaning of the object. Equally in Ifafa V(Stella) (2008) (Fig. 8) Betrand Lavier whose work is steeped in the conceptual appropriation of objects and other artists works, reinterprets a painting by Frank Stella creating a glowing tonal rendition of the original.

Finally in the last section of the exhibition there is a video work, Averse (2007) by Delphine Reist that shows a room lit by unforgiving white florescent tubes. One by one at irregular intervals the tubes fall from their fittings and smash on the concrete floor below. With the loss of each tube the room gets dimmer until, inevitably, there is darkness. It is here with the layer of video art added to the spice of a neon work that somehow the meaning is reactivated. The physicality of the light is a component but not the only part of the work, the act of watching the demise of lights, the sound of smashing glass; the flow of some form of narrative invigorates this work.

In watching this last piece I began to feel that, enjoyable as it is to view the textual works or the purity of the light forms, there is a layer of complexity that is sorely lacking in many of the neon works. There is no doubt that in the scheme of the self referential history of a medium, the reflection of one piece next to another and the different approaches to neon art that have occurred during the past century are interesting and provide a narrative of the development of neon art. However, beyond exploring the power of words and geometry in lights or the references to other artistic works one is left wondering how much further light can be bent and twisted to produce new meaning? In the final analysis this exhibition at the Maison Rouge may be seen as an important moment in the recognition of neon art, not so much as a careful retrospective but rather as a moment of reflection and critical illumination.

© Victoria Hobday 2012

La Maison Rouge – Foundation Antoine de Galbert, 10 Boulevard de la Bastille, Paris 75012.

Open Wednesday to Sunday 11.00 to 19.00. Late opening on Thursday nights to 21.00.


[Click on thumbnails to view larger versions]

Fig 1. Francois Morellet (1926-), Neon dans l’espace/ Neon in the space, 1969/96. Blue Neon, plexiglas base 240 x 80 x 80 cm. Galerie Denise René, Paris.

Fig 2. Lucio Fontana (1899-1968), Concetto Spatziale (#65b6) /Space Concept, 1965. Watercolour on Canvas, white neon. Fondation Lucio Fontana, Milan.

Fig 3. Jason Rhoades (1965-), Untitled, 2004. Aluminium structure, 48 neons, cables, transformers, fabric, table, bench, book. 300 x 500 x 500cm. Collection Frank Cohen.

Fig 4. Laddie John Dill (1943-), Light in Arno (detail), 1971. Neon, 200 x1 cm. Galerie Dominique Fiat, Paris.

Fig 5. Ivan Navarro (1972-), Sentinel, 2010. Red neon, aluminium, mirror, one-way mirror. 218.5 x 101 x 12cm. Galerie Daniel Templon, Paris.

Fig 6. Carlos Cruz Diez (1923-), Chromosaturation, 1965–2011. Light environment, variable dimensions. Galerie Denise René, Paris.

Fig 7. Bethan Huws (1961-), Neon, 2007–8. Orange neon. Galerie Yvon Lambert, Paris.

Fig 8. Bertrand Lavier (1949-), Ifafa V(Stella), 2008. Purple and green neon, 191.8 x 348 x 16.5cm. Galerie Yvon Lambert, Paris.