For some time now, Mary Carter, curator and director of the Museum of Neon Art (MONA) in Los Angeles, has had the bright--no, make that the incandescent--idea to mount a survey exhibition of contemporary American neon art. "But we couldn't have it at MONA because of space restrictions," she said.
Her solution? "Creative Energy: An Exhibit of Neon Art," a show of about 60 pieces at the spacious City of Brea Gallery at the Brea Civic and Cultural Center.
While the idea of translating electrical illumination into sculptural material is not new, the use of neon is. Neon, whose glow is produced when noble (or inert, non-reactive) gases that have been pumped into a vacuum tube are electrically stimulated, became a viable art material in the 1960s. That decade witnessed the fusion of art and popular culture, discovering the possibilities latent in the neon display of advertising. Pioneers in the idiom include Chryssa, who in the early '60s utilized neon in her Times Square pieces, and, later in the decade, Lili Lakich (whose works are included in this show), the founder of MONA.
Filled as they may be with noble gases, the pieces on display in Brea are anything but inert. Each artist variously incorporates neon into his or her work, forming an aesthetic of glow. In this show, neon is used in conjunction with drawing, painting, photography, constructions, environments, sculpture, \o7 trompe l'oeil\f7 , stained glass, kinetic movement (real or implied), and even words and music.
Generating the same tension that animates much of contemporary art, the show reverberates between abstract and representational uses of neon. To the abstract category belong such works as Korey Kline's "And the World Turns," a blue-lit piece that looks like an upside-down ceiling fan that actually turns on its axis; Tessie Dong's two internally lit constructions, "Reflection 10" (which also effectively uses stained glass) and "Contentment;" and two exquisite "Untitled" pieces by Brian Coleman, one a bundle of lambently glowing twigs, the other a vertical configuration of such twigs.
To the representational category belong such works as Cynthia Bach's "Into Each Life a Little Rain Must Fall," in which neon implies a cascading shower stream; Ray Howlett's "Phantom Cathedral," which uses mirrors to create the reverberating illusion of vaulted cathedral arches, and Howlett's extraordinary "The Orderly Universe Crystal," which, through a single prism (and again, the mirrors), takes the viewer on what could be a ride through space on the Starship Enterprise or, conversely, on an internuclear odyssey.
With movement real or implied, a personality timid or boisterous, a function descriptive or expressive, neon, as this show ably demonstrates, has a life of its own.
What: "Creative Energy: An Exhibit of Neon Art."
When: Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, noon to 5 p.m.; Thursday till 8 p.m. (closed Sunday through Tuesday). Through March 20.
Where: City of Brea Gallery, Brea Civic and Cultural Center, One Civic Center Circle, Brea.
Whereabouts: Exit Orange (57) Freeway west at Imperial Highway. Turn right on Randolph Avenue, then right on Birch Street. Gallery is at the corner of Randolph and Birch.
Wherewithal: $1 suggested donation.
Where to call: (714) 990-7730.