The late Hungarian artist/scholar György Kepes, founder of the now defunct School of Advanced Visual Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, used to speak of light as a medium for art. As a student of Moholy-Nagy at the New Bauhaus in Chicago (1937–38), Kepes understood that light would gradually come to occupy the work of artists in the future, including pioneers, such as Len Lye and Thomas Wilfred, and eventually, by the 1960s, Dan Flavin, Bruce Nauman, Joseph Kosuth, and Keith Sonnier. What constituted the difference between pigment and light was the latter’s propensity for dematerialization, that is, for extracting illumination from materials derived from the physical universe. Whereas the Sun gives light to Earth as it does to other planetary bodies, where does the Sun derive its source of light? The challenges raised by this question may account for its continuing fascination and mystery among artists with the medium of light today.
Relatively speaking, Keith Sonnier’s interest in the connections between nature and technology has a long history. His early minimal-style neons from 1968–1970 have a highly reductive, classical, nearly stoic appearance. The more recent formulations, though extravagantly tactile, were less evident in the beginning. Here I refer to the neon/glass works, not, for example, to his earlier “Small File Studies” (1966) where the hint of the artist’s tactile involvement is first made evident. Only later did Sonnier begin to develop a type of paradoxical mannerist unity applied in his neon and assemblage works. The consequence of this long-term exploration is revealed in two recent works from the current show at Pace, titled “Lobbed Claw” and “Elliptically Lobbed” (both 2013). Each work — constructed with giant Arp-like sheets of glass with neon tubes and electrical wiring, including transformers, acrylic shapes and enamel paint — appears less involved with a priori traces borrowed from external theory than from the artist’s acute desire to leap into the thicket of an intense mental/aesthetic dexterity.
One might find a touch of the late Duchamp in this work, an affinity found not only in the Nail Files (a kind of “rectified readymade”), but a year later in 1967 when Sonnier projected a large video image of the back of his hand with five fingers spread, as if to symbolize the five senses: the hallmark of the artist’s method of work. Through the senses, his tactile desire and creative offerings have come full force, emerging and re-emerging in whatever way possible. At times, the results may appear deliberately off-center, suggesting that he is aware of his influences, but also ready to defy them. This extraordinary visual leap also appears in “Lobbed Shape” (2013), as a work, along with the others, that defiantly runs against the conformist tide as if to shun all textual references. Instead of the text, he is left with a profound sense of doubt, or so it would seem given the manner in which his clamorous slots of light gain not only explosive volume, but an infinite aggregation as in the solar elements in the midst of a rehearsal of space/time.
Sonnier’s recent neons, as seen in this exhibition, suggest his eye is clearly in tune with his body, not separate from it. This runs counter to the familiar, yet absurd adage — “he’s got a great eye” — as if the eye could somehow float in suspension outside the body, removed from head, torso, arms, legs, and sex. What could this possibly mean? Rather I find in Sonnier a conflation between the retinal and the non-retinal, between the mind and the body, between nature and technology, resulting in a delicate unity, a renewal of form, that perpetually probes the tactility of our vision. For Sonnier the eye/mind/body mechanism is a well-knit triumvirate. Thematically related to an earlier exhibition at the Mary Boone Gallery, the recent works shown at Pace push further in their ability to expand the focus of light beyond obvious ploys of composition. They take us beyond the insipid lone eye remorse of connoisseurship and far beyond the egregious stupefaction of the spectacle. They constitute nothing less than an unexpected chanson d’ésprit, a clear poetic license, removed from transgression and, in the process, gives form to light, rather than its opposite.
To clarify the issue of the wall disappearing in relation to the volume of light expressed by Sonnier in relation to his neon/glass works (as discussed in Richard Shiff’s essay), one might better say that the combined mediums of transparency and inert gases (neon and argon) dissolve the wall or create an illusion of disappearance. The wall does not literally disappear. Sonnier’s tactile, if not hermetic escapades express the fading ecstasy of light by which the world remains capable of turning. These carefully intuited, yet fundamentally refined works illuminate eye/mind/body with an ambiguous, often inscrutable rapture. They remain less a statement of blind faith than a perennial testament to the endurance by which Sonnier continues to breathe fresh air into his work.
Keith Sonnier: Elysian Plain + Early Works continues at Pace Gallery (510 West 25th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through February 22.