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A Paean to Neon : It's Campy, Trashy, Sexy, Artificial, and, Sometimes, It's Art

January 19, 1986|WILLIAM WILSON | William Wilson is The Times' art critic

Suppose your life was such a continuous festive twinkly blinking glowing whoopee that when your birthday came, nobody could figure out a way to top an ordinary day? That seems to be the situation as regards neon.

The electric neon sign was patented Jan. 19, 1915, and its 70th year passed without any delirium over the occasion. Anyway, how could one fete neon other than by shutting it all off? The stuff is pervasive, from the Gulf Stream waters to the New York island, scribbling glowworm loops around Las Vegas lounge lizard and Parisian showgirl alike. Burlesque arabesque. It all goes back to the "Anything Is Art" dictum of the '60s. How were we to know that that idealism would get twisted into "Anything Is a Collectible With Accrual Value"?

Now Melrose Avenue shops glow with witty new-wave designs saying stuff like "Whacko." This is no ordinary street decor. Most of it betrays the hand of a hip graphic artist. This is designer neon.

That shouldn't surprise anybody. A Melrose shop specializes in campy neon images of palm trees and strawberry sundaes that can be taken home for a rather stiff sum. Downtown, neon is further elevated from collectible to the object of serious contemplation--if we believe in the cachet implied by a place called the Museum of Neon Art.

Neon is inseparable from the visual vernacular of the modern urban world, but we never quite take it for granted as we do the light bulb. People keep wanting to turn neon into art. For a couple of decades now, artists both profound and trendy have experimented with the strange glowing gas in the serpentine glass tubes. The fascination is interesting in itself.

One recent night, I reflexively snapped on the TV to induce torpor. Instead I was riveted by a curious program, a paean to neon. It was so odd that I may have dozed off and dreamed the whole thing. The allegorical muse of the medium was characterized as a kinky female drifter, a creature of the night. Like neon, which really doesn't emit much light, she was more decorative than useful. Like neon, she seemed to represent rather trashily exotic pleasures. And, like neon, she was at once a campy, sentimental old operator and an immortal, sexy adolescent.

Neon is, of course, not art in itself any more than oil paint or photographic film is art. But it is a particularly seductive medium because of both its intrinsic glamour and its incrusted association with nighttime cities. No one can be surprised at any artist who is attracted to its charms. It is the electric equivalent of colors like fuchsia and purple or meretricious materials such as gold. Yet as an art material, it

is technically recalcitrant.

What is worse, however, is neon's dictatorial nature. You can say you can't make art of it because it's difficult or because it is already art with a will of its own. It can draw any but the most wily artist into its sleazy cold glamour. Imagine a piece of neon glowing in your house at midnight when a phone call came saying a loved one was sick or dead. The confrontation of artificiality and reality would create instant cynicism.

That's it. Neon is about artifice. Maybe that interesting, neon-soaked flop movie "One From the Heart" misfired because it's hard to believe that anybody is really in love while bathed in that chemi-color glow.

Clearly there has been a "neon renaissance" that has resulted in some technical improvements in colors and tube forming, but mainly it has caused the saturation seepage of the medium from sign-making into art and design and back into the general visual vernacular.

Occasionally its literalism is harnessed to poetic ends when the rod is obscured and only its cool halations show. Early in his career, Laddie John Dill tapped it for some usually invisible alchemical properties. Keith Sonnier clarified its sheer, science-fiction eccentricity. Bruce Nauman has done an amazing job of co-opting it by pretending to cooperate. He uses it in flashing signs in which mottoes such as "Human Nature / Animal Nature" suggest a moral element that really needles the medium.

Some observers think we are in the pinball sunset of neon. Recently, the wizards who generate computer graphics have learned how to make neon-like, colored linear drawings. They just use pixels of light. Real neon does not need to exist to create the effect. If this culture continues to evolve into a mass of nervous hobbits clinging to the electronic hearth of an evening, television could well make neon as obsolete as the fancy movie palaces neon once decorated.

Then we will all change our minds and decide that it was, after all, art of the anonymous type that is impossible to recognize until the culture that spawned it is kaput. The Middle Ages had cathedrals and candles. The modern age has steel, glass and neon.

As long as people go out at night, neon will remain the tingle-trigger for the nostalgia and excitement of a magic evening on the town.

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