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Illuminating an Unusual Art Form


Lili Lakich didn't start out to be a neon artist. Growing up in a military family among the great cathedrals of Europe, she initially wanted to work in stained glass but couldn't find a teacher.

As an art student at prestigious Pratt Institute in Brooklyn in the '60s, she realized she didn't care much for painting--too messy, for starters ("I was the little kid who didn't like to finger-paint," she jokes).

Lakich also tried filmmaking but found it too collaborative for her taste. "It comes down to the lowest common denominator of who's on the crew that determines what the product is," she says.

"I gave a lot of thought to what I liked looking at," she says of her long search for a medium of her own. The one given: She knew she liked to draw.

Ultimately, she realized she delighted in the exuberant medium of neon, the shining stuff that signs for Miller Lite are made of. In her hands, glass tubing filled with neon and other gases is an evocative art form that exploits light as surely as the stained glass she once longed to master.

Especially in her early work, which featured neon displayed against a black background, she capitalized on its surprising kinship with drawing: "Oddly enough, neon is a drawing medium. It's a line, a glowing line."

Lakich taught herself to work with neon, learning such essentials as how to hook it up to a light source. By the early 1970s, she was producing memorable female nudes, portraits as minimalist as those of Matisse, and monumental works incorporating images from tattoo parlors as well as her psyche.

Dozens of her old and new pieces are included in Lakich's show "Sirens & Other Neon Seductions," which opens Saturday at Cal State Northridge and continues through March 31.

For CSUN, this is a landmark exhibit that celebrates the opening of the school's Art Galleries in a bright yellow building of their own. Previously, the galleries were housed in the Richard Neutra-designed Fine Arts Building, damaged beyond repair by the 1994 Northridge earthquake.

Galleries Director Louise Lewis wanted a neon artist to open the new building, she says, because light and space are so obviously linked. But Lewis also felt Lakich's work was particularly apt, given the galleries' commitment to showing all kinds of work.

Lakich, Lewis says, "is very inclusive. She does both vernacular and vanguard. She does both advertising and museum art, and our galleries are inclusive also."

Included in the show is Lakich's first installation piece. Called "Sirens," it is a gay bar that she has filled with appropriate neon sculptures, including a portrait of lesbian author and icon Djuna Barnes.

Many of the new pieces in the installation were created from found objects. "Call Me: A Self Portrait" incorporates a jukebox rescued from a local diner, a pay phone found in Elysian Park and a discarded medical table. Wired for sound (it plays Blondie's "Call Me"), the sculpture is also very personal. "These are my eyes, and that's my phone number," Lakich says.

Some of the barroom sculptures are playful, such as the clock on the wall topped with the neon words, "Time to Come Out."

Others are sobering. One of the newest pieces, "Sticks and Stones," invites visitors to stand in front of a long list of hurtful names hurled at gays (a sign on the floor marks the spot where onlookers can "Stand in my shoes"). Thanks to closed circuit video, the visitor sees his or her own face hovering above the vocabulary of abuse.

The bar, for which Lakich designed a shining mermaid logo seven feet long, also houses a pool table and much of the artist's own modest collection of favorite neon advertising signs, such as the Indian-adorned ad for Natural American Spirit cigarettes.

The neon artist faces limitations that the person who paints or works in clay never has to think about. First, there is a relatively restricted palette, determined by the color of the glass tubing, any phosphor inside the glass, and whether neon, argon, helium, krypton or xenon gas is used.

"There's a range of possibly 200 colors, 50 of which are orange," Lakich says, with a laugh. Only recently, she points out, have blue and lavender been added to the neon artist's paint box.

In 1981, Lakich co-founded Los Angeles' Museum of Neon Art, or MONA, with artist Richard Jenkins. She also created its striking logo--the neon-limned face of Mona Lisa.

Over three decades, Lakich has seen the fall and resurrection of her favorite medium. In the 1970s, while she and her contemporaries were exploring the artistic possibilities of neon, cities such as Glendale and San Diego passed ordinances barring neon signage in their downtowns. Around 1980, neon's fortunes began to rise again. Today it is highly valued by architects and city planners for its ability to brighten and humanize a space.

Neon, Lakich says, "is an incredible light source that really enlivens any situation . . . it adds a sense of life, of well-being and of safety."

Asked how her work has evolved, Lakich says, "I think my work now is more about light than line." Instead of using black backgrounds, she often cuts honeycomb aluminum into shapes that seem to float in her recent constructions.

Neon is a costly medium. Large pieces require an investment of thousands of dollars for materials alone. Fortunately, she still likes to draw, since she must do extensive preliminary sketches before she commits her ideas to neon: "The materials are so expensive, I can't afford to be tired of it in six months."

The public is welcome at a free reception Saturday at 8 p.m. celebrating the opening of the Lakich show in the Art Galleries on the CSUN campus. For more information, call (818) 677-2226.


Spotlight appears every Friday. Patricia Ward Biederman can be reached at

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