Light Touch: Keith Sonnier at the New Orleans Museum of Art

Keith Sonnier: Ba-O-Ba I (Ba-O-Ba Series), 1969, plate glass, neon tubing, electrical wire, and transformer, 84 by 204 by 18 inches; at the New Orleans Museum of Art, Louisiana. © 2018 Keith Sonnier/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

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In 1968 Keith Sonnier created his first artwork using neon. Untitled (Cloth and Neon) comprises a flashing curved tube filled with the gaseous element, hung on a wall surrounded by pinned scraps of pastel tulle and satin. The work is messy and feels ephemeral. It appears in “Until Today,” now at the New Orleans Museum of Art, and it seems as if the fans ventilating the museum could blow it away. The survey—organized by the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill, New York, and running in the artist’s home state of Louisiana through June 2—follows Sonnier’s ongoing use of neon and contextualizes it within his explorations of form, space, and communication. Viewed in relation to other artists’ more recent, and sleeker, uses of neon, the exhibition offers an important reassessment of an often overlooked pioneer.

Sonnier was one of the first artists to incorporate neon into his work in the 1960s. But while figures like Joseph Kosuth and Bruce Nauman used the medium around the same time to wryly challenge the conventions and limitations of language, Sonnier embraced neon as a means to stretch the definition of drawing. Early examples like Neon Wrapping Incandescent II (1968) use neon tubing as a way to sketch in three dimensions. This work’s interlocking loops of red and blue and its draped black cords are like luminous doodles. Blue and yellow supports in Neon Wrapping Neon V (1969) come off the wall to carve out a rectangular block of space, throwing off the viewer’s sense of perspective.

Kosuth’s and Nauman’s influence is easy to see in the current popularity of neon. The medium is most often used to dress words up as flashy commercial signage. Artists like Glenn Ligon and Jason Rhoades have used neon to illuminate the sordid sides of American patriotism and commerce. In 2014 Tavares Strachan sent a barge down the Mississippi with the cloyingly optimistic phrase YOU BELONG HERE written in pink neon on scaffolding constructed on the otherwise empty boat. Zoë Buckman’s on-the-nose neon uterus with boxing gloves went viral in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election. And a recent Architectural Digest feature on Kylie Jenner’s new abode highlighted a Tracey Emin piece that “best sums up the saucy vibe of the dynamo’s dazzling home.” You can currently buy a faux-neon flamingo-shaped lamp for $19.99 at Target. The contemporary reclamation of the capitalist kitsch of locales like Times Square, Bourbon Street, and the Las Vegas strip has made neon a hit.

If much work in neon these days parrots the slick look of signage, Sonnier’s pieces exemplify the anti-form ethos of curator Harald Szeemann’s legendary 1969 “Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form: Works, Concepts, Processes, Situations, Information.” (The exhibition included Cloth and Neon among other works by Sonnier.) In Ba-O-Ba I (1969), the geometric lines of colored neon seem to dematerialize as their light reflects off two large plates of glass. Sonnier left exposed the utility box and black wiring that power the neon tubes, including the mechanics as part of the work itself. In later pieces, like Los La Butte (1990) and Catahoula (1994), Sonnier wrapped lights around industrial scraps and found objects, including empty bottles of antifreeze and Murphy Oil, highlighting neon’s materiality over its potential to convey messages.

Though Sonnier avoids direct representation, communication is at the heart of much of his practice. In the 1970s, he used television and radio to create multimedia works exploring the physical and semiotic distance between words, images, and the people who use them. In Send/Receive Satellite Network: Phase I (1977), not included in this exhibition, Sonnier worked in collaboration with Liza Béar to set up a live satellite feed. To mark lags in the broadcast, he superimposed text on the video, such as: HALF-SECOND DELAY BETWEEN WHAT YOU SAY [AND] WHEN IT IS HEARD. At NOMA, Quad Scan (1975) surfs ship-to-shore radio transmissions and plays them in the gallery. At some times, the result is static; at others, one hears voices from offshore barges and industrial boats. Sculptural works like Propeller Spinner (1990) and the immersive Passage Azur (2015/18) use neon to visualize the movement of information through space. Propeller Spinner matches antennae-like pieces of metal with bright sticks of multicolored neon. The radiant, swirling lines of Passage Azur, suspended from the ceiling, give the odd, yet mesmerizing, impression of being inside the internet.

In interviews, Sonnier names the glowing signs of juke joints and dance halls near his hometown of Mamou, Louisiana, as the inspiration for his work in neon; he describes neon as a “hot material,” imbued with the feelings of sex and desire associated with those places. Arabic Fringe (2004) demonstrates this connection, combining neon with sensual bright-red fringe. Non-neon works like Suku-Na-Biko (1984) and Elgin Fragment III (2011) evidence Sonnier’s interest in the body with phallic protrusions made of wood and plaster. The black-and-white video Painted Foot (1970) shows the artist applying fluorescent pigment to his skin. Walking through “Until Today,” one can almost feel this contact in the idiosyncratic twists and bends of neon tubing.

Nauman and Ligon have powerfully used neon to construct signs satirizing the contradictory and sometimes insidious messages society broadcasts to us. Sonnier’s work offers a different way of thinking. In USA: War of the Worlds (2004), chaotic swirls of neon and dinky American flags surround a small globe. Made just one year after the US invasion of Iraq, the work doesn’t provide any answers. Instead, it suggests the chaos of a war deeply connected to the media’s coverage of it. By invoking the confusion and dizziness of the sign viewer, not the constrained formalism of the sign maker, Sonnier captures the feeling that meaning is always just out of one’s grasp.