Neon: Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue? at Maison Rouge
There haven’t been a lot of major exhibitions on neon, despite Laszlo Moholy-Nagy noting its artistic potential in the 1930s and the medium really coming of age with Bruce Nauman’s work in the 1960s. Neon has generally been treated as a novelty or an outlier, despite being relatively mainstream for over forty years. The title of Maison Rouge’s exhibition is both a quotation from a piece by Maurizio Nannucci and a taunt to all those institutions who didn’t take up the challenge of putting together this important survey.
The focus here is firmly on neon as art, looking primarily at the 1960s and the last ten years, organised thematically. Fittingly, the exhibition begins with Franck Scurti’s 2003 ‘TABAC,’ a playful way of acknowledging the medium’s relationship with the city street whilst planting audiences firmly in the fine art world.
The way in which the art world has generally treated pieces in neon means that pieces in museums are often seen in isolation, giving the strong seductive impact of neon lighting priority over how the medium is being used. Not yet accustomed to the glow, people either apply their critical faculties too much or too little, which is perhaps why neon art has had trouble being wholly accepted. The Maison Rouge’s exhibition groups a large number of neon works together, and so works can no longer shirk judgement through virtue of standing out.
Carlos Cruz-Diez, 'Chromosaturation' (detail). Photo Author's Own.
If everything’s neon, a work can no longer succeed just by being neon. This isn’t to say that the pieces chosen by the Maison Rouge fail. Rather, most succeed on their own terms and show that neon isn’t a tool to render the banal exciting; it’s an important artistic force that’s often used both beautifully and intelligently.
In the opening rooms of the exhibition, François Morellet’s pieces stand out. ‘Néon dans l’Espace’ is a three-dimensional storm that celebrates the medium’s energy and potential, flashing and dancing with electricity. It gives you a headache, but it impresses simultaneously. Nearby, his ‘Enchainement No. 8′ is an abstract composition over a canvas, showcasing neon’s materiality and linking it to art history.
Some works, like Tracey Emin’s ‘Just Love Me,’ aren’t intended to be seen alongside other neon pieces. In another setting, viewers see the sharp contrast between the tubes of gas, more known for strip clubs and all night eateries than private moments, and the intimate words they illuminate. Emin’s signs are poetic and usually quite potent, but their impact rests on the viewer’s associations, numbed by an exhibition that normalises neon. It’s hard to see how this problem could have been avoided.
Generally, the exhibition is hit after hit. Jeff Koons’s ‘Pot, the Pre-New Senses’ shows that well-known artists can’t necessarily master every medium, but Cerith Wyn Evans, Mai Thu Perret, Maurizio Nannucci and Joseph Kosuth all present works that stand up to scrutiny.
Another favourite is Carlos Cruz-Diez’s ‘Chromosaturation,’ an installation occupying a small room. Neon tubes are used to magical effect, hovering just above the heads of visitors. The lights change surfaces and dimensions; everything has a flat, unreal quality, and colours fading into one another appear like sunsets. Cruz-Diez gives the light something to play with in the form of two walls dividing up the space and two cubes suspended from the ceiling. The way that 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. If Morellet’s ‘Néon dans l’Espace’ gives you a headache, this room feels like a health tonic.
‘Chromosaturation’ is the crescendo of the exhibition, and it’s right then that you’re taken back out into the foyer, with its central courtyard, for a pause before the second half of the show.
This begins with a section entitled ‘Les Pionniers’. As in the first half of the show, there are plenty of familiar names. There are works by Lucio Fontana and Dan Flavin; Bruce Nauman greets you with his irreverent twist on a handshake. There’s another work by François Morellet, which links neon tubes to a clicking foot pedal; the composition changes with viewer interaction.
The last three rooms are entitled ‘Songe, Éclipse, Extinction’ and are in the Maison Rouge’s basement, which acts as a sort of underworld. Claude Lévèque’s charming ‘Rêvez!’ hints colourfully at the potential of dream, and is followed by 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 neon and caged, tiny and powerless in a dark corner.
The exhibition closes with Delphine Reist’s surprisingly chilling ‘Averse’. 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.
When all the lights have smashed and the room is dark, it’s hard not to feel moved. This is a fantastic exhibition; it’s thought-provoking, well-organised and has enough range in artists to ensure most will encounter artists they haven’t heard of and artists they know well. The exhibition takes you on a journey through varied neon terrain and should convince even the hardest sceptic that neon art is something to which we should pay attention. Neon: Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue? runs until May 20th and is certainly worth seeing.