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SIGHTS AROUND TOWN : A Primer in Neon : The four-person show at Ventura's Momentum Gallery features work silly and sublime, and it's proving quite popular.

December 26, 1991|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Early in this century, artists left the comfort of the studio and the easel, and set out to work with materials and ideas of the "outside" world. So we have Marcel Duchamp's signed urinal and Christo's umbrellas.

Neon, a friendly medium that is pliable and ripe with pop culture appeal, would seem an obvious choice for artists wishing to engage in a fresh dialogue between material and message. Yet neon art has emerged only slowly, and despite the presence of the 10-year-old Museum of Neon Art in Los Angeles, devotees are still struggling for respect in the art world.

Part of neon art's problem is the medium's heritage as a loud, garish ornament to the cluttered sight lines of the urban landscape. But there is more to neon than meets the eyes of a visitor to Las Vegas.

That is precisely the point of the current four-person "Flash: Neon Art" show at the Momentum Gallery in Ventura. With work ranging from the silly to the sublime, the exhibition is a tiny but tidy primer in the possibilities of using neon toward aesthetic ends.

Not surprisingly, the exhibition is one of the most popular shows ever at the Momentum, a perfect holiday show with a populist appeal transcending barriers of age and aesthetic conditioning. Bring the kids. Bring the philistine aunt from Dubuque. Bring an appetite for kitsch and also some strikingly introspective works by renowned neon artist Michael Hayden.

The king of the kitsch department is Michael Flechtner, whose pieces perform viewer-activated song and dance routines. When viewers enter the darkened gallery, they are confronted with "Holagorilla"--five neon-tubing ape heads, in varying degrees of a growl, which flash in computer-choreographed patterns, sometimes dizzyingly.

Here, the illusion of motion seems to refer to Eadweard Muybridge's 19th-Century, pre-cinema photographic experiments documenting animal locomotion. But Flechtner's main focus is funky fun. Likewise with his "Dinosaur Head" and "Pop Shark," cutely kinetic contraptions that wouldn't be out of place in a Hard Rock Cafe.

Jan Sanchez lives in Ojai and specializes in site-specific artworks often involving neon. As her site for this show, she chose a scaffolding-like sculpture that is a site-specific work itself--artist David Feinner put it up for a show at the gallery earlier this year. Sanchez's piece, "Under Glass," is now a companion piece to Feinner's floor-to-ceiling structure, repeating its form on the floor.

But whereas Feinner's work is stark and industrial--blending into the warehouse-like woodwork of the gallery--Sanchez's new extension is magical-mystical, a Day-Glo fancy. Transparent shards of glass are illuminated by neon tubes below, creating an iridescent effect and also reminding us of the colored ice in a Slurpee.

Steven Schauer's works play with the basic function of the gallery wall. One work depicts the trunk of a female nude, framed and rectangular in format, like a painting, but illuminated from behind.

Quantitatively, there are more individual pieces by Hayden than any other artist, but they never scream for attention or easy laughs. His subtle works talk softly and yet carry big, deep ideas.

Although known for large-scale public neon pieces in such locales as Chicago's O'Hare Airport and at the Jewelry Center in downtown Los Angeles, Hayden's gallery work deftly explores the ephemeral and illusionistic properties of the medium. The loudest of his works here, "Transposition," is reminiscent of the Jewelry Center work, involving flashing semicircles.

Hayden displays a scientific curiosity but also an assured personal sense of beauty. Rather than rely on neon's conventions, he finds new ways to disperse light and color. Orange-red light seeps and slithers through the twisting tube of "Helix I." Electrical charges quiver erratically in "Aurora Polaris," triggering associations with Dr. Frankenstein's lab. The nature of neon gas itself becomes a point of departure in "Elemental Unit" and "Power Groove."

The most satisfying of Hayden's pieces here--and in the show generally--is tucked in a corner, far away in every sense from Flechtner's cheeky animalia. "Lumetric Serpentine" is a hypnotic display of light and color in which a constantly shifting palette of colors passes through a long, winding stretch of tubing.

This would be a stunning and yet discreet utilization of neon in a fine art context. The ironic catch: "Lumetric Serpentine" is not a neon piece at all, but uses fiber-optics set against a holographic surface.

The point of this work's inclusion in a neon art show may be to underscore the idea that neon is not an end to itself. It can be a passing fancy, a stepping stone or a passionate pursuit, but in any case a perfectly valid art medium.

"Addictions," a dark-spirited, reality-based and weirdly compelling gathering of new art based on human addiction, is hanging now at Santa Barbara's Contemporary Arts Forum.

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