Brightly colored, fanciful neon signs have been beckoning Los Angeles area inhabitants since the 1920s. It was then that car salesman Earle Anthony visited France--where the neon sign had been invented in 1910 by Georges Claude--and brought back two that he used to lure potential customers into his Packard dealership.
The signs brought crowds of onlookers and caused a sensation. By the next decade, clever neon come-ons were everywhere, enticing people into diners, bars, movie palaces and any number of retail businesses.
Some of the finest examples of vintage neon are now in the collection of the 10-year-old Museum of Neon Art. It recently announced plans to close its downtown Los Angeles site in late summer or early fall, and open a museum store in the new Universal City shopping complex, CityWalk (set to open at the end of the year). More than 35 vintage signs from the collection also will be displayed along the walk.
But the museum has done more than preserve old neon. Its very existence also has encouraged contemporary artists to explore and expand the medium's artful capabilities.
One can see the varied ways in which 12 local artists have incorporated neon into their artwork, and taken it beyond its most common applications, in the show "Age of Light" at the Creative Arts Center Municipal Gallery in Burbank. "Most of the artists created new work for the show," said Jan Sanchez, the artist curating the exhibit. Her own installation, "Between Heaven and Earth," is included.
"It takes on an ethereal feeling, closer to heaven," Sanchez said.
She has placed variously colored neon lighting tubes within a white-washed, four-walled structure, making it appear like a lighted greenhouse glowing in the darkness of night. On the floor, the structure is encircled by an adobe rim filled with volcanic cinders, gravel, pieces of tempered safety glass and flashing incandescent lights contained underneath multicolored stained glass.
Cynthia Bach's piece, "Damn!" stays closer to earth. Inspired by a black-and-white photograph of a woman reputed to be Holly Woodlawn, Andy Warhol's friend, she has constructed a circa 1940 environment, covering its walls with red-flowered wallpaper and its floor with old linoleum.
An ironing board, which she has painted red, stands in this room. Someone has burnt an iron-shaped hole right through it and through the floor. A green neon cord, which is plugged into the wall socket, runs through both holes, which have been lined with red neon.
"Neon is magic to me. It makes the whole piece light up literally," Bach said. "No other medium is that gratifying."
Guy Marsden said he wanted to "set the neon free to dance and come alive" in his "Kinetic Cuneiform." Viewers must clap their hands to start the neon in motion.
Lili Lakich, the founder of the Museum of Neon Art, pays tribute to jazz great John Coltrane in her large 1985 perforated metal cutout likeness of him, "Ghost of John Coltrane." The piece is awash in shades of red, pink and blue generated by neon tubes attached to the back of it.
Kunio Ohashi has made an elegant landscape using black gravel, driftwood and numerous neon colors in his depiction of "Wind, Rain and Sun." His "Tree and Rock/The Place I Want to Be," with natural tree branches, rocks and neon accents, conveys a peaceful tone. "I'm trying to be loud, but it always comes out quiet," he said.
Michael Flechtner's "Bodhisattva Self-Portrait" is ringed with neon hands that flash, in sign language for the deaf, 11 different letters in the alphabet. They spell out more than 100 words and the Buddhist chant, "Namu myo ho renge kyo."
"I wanted to create a piece of art that prayed for world peace," Flechtner said.
As a sculptor, he is determined to get away from neon's typically flat, two-dimensional use. His "Dinosaur Head" is not only three-dimensional but animated; it takes only a person walking by it to trigger its jaw to drop, presenting a friendly faced greeting.
Like several other artists in the show, Sanchez said she started working with neon after her first visit to the Museum of Neon Art. "I just thought it was the most impressive new medium. What an exciting material to express yourself in!" she exclaimed. "It's the only art form that's really alive. You plug it in, and it's energy itself. When the sun goes down, the neon comes up."
Other artists represented in "Age of Light" are Tessie Dong, Candice Gawne, Maurice Gray, Korey Kline, Kim Koga and David Svenson.
Where and When
What: "Age of Light."
Location: Creative Arts Center Municipal Gallery, 1100 W. Clark Ave., Burbank.
Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and 6:30 to 9 p.m. Monday to Thursday and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday, to Aug. 28.
Call: (818) 953-8763.