BLACKPOOL, UK — In White Noise, novelist Don Delillo imagines an American university where professors in the popular culture department devote their energy to reading cereal boxes and the like. Thirty years after this satire, we not only have real academics writing about the history and utility of neon as an advertising medium, but exhibitions dedicated to it. In the UK, the Grundy Art Gallery has, according to them, just mounted the island’s most extensive survey of neon as art to date.
Neon first appeared in Paris in 1910, and before World War I there were already more than 160 neon advertisements throughout France. Along with neon, argon and sodium were also found to glow, due to the introduction of an electrical current. It was the French physicist and chemist Georges Claude who first stabilized and patented the process of neon and brought it to the world at large.
The first grand-scale use of neon in the UK occurred in a seaside resort in the northwest known as Blackpool, which has long used light to drum up the tourist trade. In the 1930s, amusement arcades and dance halls introduced neon to their storefronts; the local spectacle became known as the Illuminations. Now the town enjoys a nightly clash between its luminous promenade and the dark roughness of the Irish Sea.
Such is the context for the Grundy’s exhibition, which looks at how artists have used neon and elements on the periodic table for the past 50 years. In fact, the history of the noble gasses in art is as long as the history of neon in Blackpool; we learn from the catalogue that it was a Czech artist called Zdeněk Pešánek who first made art with neon in 1934, if not earlier.
But NEON: The Charged Line begins its chronology much later, with Joseph Kosuth, who worked with bold text signage. In 1965, he gave us a conceptual icon with a tube of glowing whiteness that simply spells the word “neon.” This electrifying work fuses the distance within words, between signifying and signified elements, which characterized the structuralist thought at the time. In a 21st-century landscape in which lexical slippage is the norm, this piece (also called “Neon”) looks even more like a lightning strike on the English language.
Thirty years later, Fiona Banner seemed to want to put a full stop to the use of neon with her single illuminated period dot. The young British artist took minimalism to an extreme with a light piece measuring just 1cm squared. Dangling from the wiring that climbs some 8 feet up the gallery wall, the work only just holds the attention. It may have seemed, in 1997, that the history of neon in art was coming to a close. But no matter how witty, the prediction could not have been more wrong.
Indeed the majority of works in this show are from the 21st century, which is something of an imbalance. Among them is Tracey Emin’s 2002 piece, “I know I know I know,” which carries those very words in fiery red. The second “I know” is crossed out in electric blue. After working through the piece’s teen-like angst, you can marvel at Emin’s neon manufacturer. The words have been rendered in fine tubes that resemble her handwriting. If not set in stone, the result is at least set ablaze. Like the embroidery in Emin’s best work, neon is still a craft.
Though it tends to shout in the visual landscape, neon comes to us in delicate glass tubes and some ingenuity is required to achieve all but the simplest of designs. This fragility is exposed further into the show, by a pimped-up cement mixer, which contrasts with its acid green trim. The mixer found its way from a building site to an art gallery via an intervention by David Batchelor, who frequently works with light and unlovely industrial objects or refuse vessels. It seems important that the machine is clearly used and clearly filthy. But the dried cement fades into darkness, just as soon as the piece is switched on. So there is nothing that art, light, or color cannot sex up.
Sex is certainly on the agenda in a pair of vaulting sculptures by contemporary French artist, François Morellet. Red neon comes away from the wall to spell out three slender ‘X’s which reach from floor to ceiling. No wonder that neon was once thought to be morally suspect. In the 1920s, the writer G.K. Chesterton felt that it misused the “two most vivid and most mystical gifts of God, color and fire.” Batchelor’s cement mixer and these two works by Morellet stretch the range of neon, and are for me the highlights of the show.
Opposite this, the Morellet has teased up a few neon plumes into a tower of blue light, which here expresses a spiritual yearning to contrast with the earthy triple X. It is true that the material speaks to both the body and the soul; neon is a crowd pleaser and this show has something of the good cheer of the Blackpool seafront about it. The Grundy’s director and the show’s curator Richard Parry told me there was a moment of magic when the gallery first switched on the show.
“There is something immediately engaging and kind of uplifting about neon and some of the works are just good fun in a way because of that,” admitted Parry when I spoke to him at the launch. But, he also says that the show has a serious intent. “There’s a lot of thinking and ideas … lots of depth and layers.”
“In many respects its quite a vintage material, and outdated,” said Parry. “But it seems to have this continuous draw and I think there is something the sheer brilliance of the color, which is not like any other material.” Being hand-blown glass objects, he adds, these neon artworks look backwards and, thanks to their association with bright lights and big cities, forwards.
So, despite the somewhat limited scale of the exhibition, NEON: The Charged Line remains the UK’s largest exhibition dedicated solely to the medium. It should inspire even more art historians and historians to study the subject of neon. But beyond that, it must be said, there is indeed a magic about neon, and it works as well in a pristine white gallery as it does on a seedy seaside promenade.
NEON: The Charged Line continues at Grundy Art Gallery (Queen St, Blackpool FY1 1PU, UK) through January 7, 2017.