There aren't really any precedents for 'Neon: who's afraid of red, yellow and blue?' at Maison Rouge. As the introductory notes remind you, the first neon sign was ordered in Paris in 1912, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy recognised its artistic potential in the 1930s and neon really came of age in the sixties. Neon has been significant in the art world for a while, yet there haven't been a lot of shows about it.
Nonetheless, this exhibition didn't disappoint (and I had high expectations).
Fittingly, this exhibition begins with a 'TABAC' sign, albeit Franck Scurti's 2003 take on the icon from the 'Reflets' series. The focus is firmly on neon as art, looking primarily at the 1960s and the last ten years, organised thematically.
My love for neon (attested to by the fact that when I went to New York in December I spent the night before reading New York Neon and taking notes -if it wasn't stealing another's idea I'd write my blog about neon) meant that I was initially jumping up and down at every piece. But the thing about a whole exhibition on neon is that quickly the medium has its seductive/shocking value muted a bit and even the most hardened neon addict starts to think critically. If everything's neon, a work can no longer succeed just by being neon.
I noticed this particularly in looking at Tracey Emin's 'Just Love Me'. I remember Emin's neon signs as a highlight of the (excellent) retrospective at the Hayward Gallery last year, but this one feels a bit stripped of its potency here. The public/commercial associations of neon are lost when in an environment where you're surrounded by neon art objects, so you no longer get the contrast that usually comes of the intimate words being displayed in this way.
Opposite the Emin piece was Jason Rhoades' 'Untitled' (2004). This installation initially seduces you with its beauty; neon words hang above a curved triangular sofa with an old book open on it. You realise, eventually, that all the words are different slang words for the vagina... or otherwise, like me, you don't realise how it all fits together until you read about it later, not knowing that "taco" can have that kind of meaning. It's a really intriguing piece and the more I learn/think about it the more I'm interested in it.
You see all the well-known recent names in the early segments of the exhibition: Sarkis; Cerith Wyn Evans; Mai Thu Perret; Maurizio Nannucci; quite a bit of Joseph Kosuth. There are famous artists you didn't know worked in neon, like Jeff Koons (though that's underwhelming -there's a reason 'Pot, the Pre-New Senses' isn't reproduced in every Koons book).
The highlights of the first parts of the exhibition are, along with Rhoades' piece, Francois Morellet's 'Néon dans l'Espace' and Carlos Cruz-Diez's 'Chromosaturation'.
Morellet's piece is pandemonium, a three-dimensional storm that really does what the label suggests, utilising and celebrating the medium's energy. It gives you a headache but simultaneously makes you think "WORTH IT" in capital letters. Morellet's 'Enchainement No.8' is in the next room, an abstract composition over a canvas, and that's also fantastic. Morellet shows neon's materiality and links it to art history. She's not just rendering something in neon, she's exploring the potential of neon itself.
Cruz-Diez's 'Chromosaturation' isn't just the highlight of the show; it's the highlight of art in 2012 so far for me. It's reminiscent of James Turrell, with the same magical surface-and-dimension-changing effects, but with the mechanism of this magic exposed, the rows of neon tubing hovering just above the viewer's head. Cruz-Diez gives the light something to play with in the form of two walls dividing the three different colours of neon from one another and two cubes suspended from the ceiling and the way the light spills from section to section and hits particular sides of the cubes means that the space itself controls when colour transitions are sharp and when they're more subtle. For some reason, the room feels like a health tonic.
It's the crescendo of the exhibition and it's right that you're then taken back out into the foyer, with its central courtyard, for a pause before the next section, which throws you back to the 1960s with a room entitled 'Les Pionniers'.
As in the first half of the exhibition, you find all the familiar names: Bruce Nauman; Dan Flavin; quite a bit of Martial Raysse. There's the well-known artist you didn't know worked with neon here, too, but this time it's Lucio Fontana and the results are magnificent.
Francois Morellet pops up again here, too, and shows himself to be a highlight of the 1960s along with today. Here, neon dances when the viewer steps on a footpedal, pausing when the pressure is lifted. It's a kind of relational aesthetics twist on formalism.
You descend, for 'Songe, Éclipse, Extinction', to a sort of underworld; the last three rooms are in the Maison Rouge's basement. Here is Claude Lévèque's charming 'Rêvez!' hinting colourfully at the potential of dream, and here is a darker sort of sleep from Stefan Brüggemann, whose piece reads (against a black wall) 'This Work Should Be Turned Off When I Die'. Laurent Pernot's 'Captivité' especially appealed to me; the moon is made of neon and is caged, looking tiny and powerless in a dark corner.
There's even a '(g)host' downstairs, courtesy of Melik Ohanian; witty placement on the part of the Maison Rouge, but also poignant, placed near Fritz Panzer's rendering of neon in wire and before Delphine Reist's 'Averse,' a chilling end to the exhibition. In a small, dark room, the audience sit and watch an empty room on a video screen as, one by one, all the neon tubes providing light fall from the ceiling and smash violently.
It's an exhibition I might return to, not so common in a city where there's always something new to see. It's thought-provoking, introduces you to artists and works you didn't know (but should) and really should convince even the hardest sceptic that neon's more than just the latest commercial trend. It's also surprisingly emotionally moving; it's rare that works make you feel so much. It's surprising a large neon exhibition didn't come earlier, but I'm really, really pleased that it came in this form.