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New Neon @ Bedford Gallery

Brian Porray, –+–H3AT D3VIL–+–, synthetic polymer, spray paint, paper on canvas, 3 parts, 60 x 144"
In New Neon: Light, Paint & Photography, a survey of neon and neon-influenced art, you’ll encounter colorful gas-filled tubes bent into clever and cryptic phrases.  There aren’t a lot of them, but there are enough of them to make you realize the differences between the innovators and the imitators.  The appearance of the latter may be a bit of a head scratcher at first, but it does serve a purpose.  It sets the stage for what may actually be new in this realm.  It has little to do with subverting advertising or reaching for transcendent experience, those being the original goals of old neon as represented by the likes of Bruce Nauman, Dan Flavin, Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer.  As presented here, new neon, if it’s "about" anything, is about neon color as a portal to fresh visions, most of them realized in painting.  It appears in various guises: Pattern and Decoration, graffiti, Pop Surrealism, Geometric Abstraction, and, in one notable non-painting instance, a wholly synthetic form of biomorphic sculpture.  
Elyse Graham, Geodes, 2013, Latex and urethane

You’ll find the latter in the work of Elyse Graham, an LA artist who’s long been long been fascinated by geological phenomena.  She creates psychedelic geodes — subterranean pods that, in nature, form when liquids or gases accumulate inside rock.  Graham creates hers by pouring neon, fluorescent and phosphorescent-colored urethane resin into molds and injecting her own breath into them to form hidden bubbles.  When cracked open the sculptures resemble radioactive seedpods.  Spiritual cousins of the work of German sculptor Marcus Linnenbrink, they are among this show’s highlights.  Brian Porray’s collage paintings, identified as by the artist as drug-fueled visions of the Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas, are another.  Working with the structure’s pyramid shape, the LA artist paints interlocking triangles whose interiors are filled with Op-ish dots and swirling lines. Some are painted, some collaged, but the overall effect is of fabric affixed to canvas.  Loosely brushed, off-kilter grids “anchor” these compositions, suggesting edifices held aloft on flexible webs.  They call to mind what might be had if the Gee’s Bend quilters were to collaborate with Bridget Riley, Frank Stella and Mary Heilmann. 

Mark Schoening’s paintings also grabbed my attention.  A combination of stenciled grids and gestural mark making, they resemble aerial views of bombing raids – their exploding forms reminiscent of works made by Shozo Shimamoto, the Gutai artist who composed by hurling paint-filled bottles at canvases. 
Patrick Martinez, The 1992 Los Angeles Riots, 2012, mixed media on plexi with neon, 36 x 48" 

And of neon lighting itself?  Patrick Martinez, another Angelino, takes as his jumping off point the neon signage found in storefronts.  He employs that framework to make pointed statements about global warming, race, money and power.  The 1992 Los Angeles Riots depicts the American flag as a shattered cubist “canvas” with shards of red and white neon shooting off in different directions against a painted black geometric backdrop: a perfect alignment of ends and means.  

While New Neon doesn’t attempt to make the case for a widespread revival of the medium, it certainly attests to its ongoing influence, particularly among painters in LA, where many of the strongest of the 29 artists in this show reside, and where retina-scorching light – both in nature and in the “built environment” – have long been facts of life.  In these cooler climes it’s a welcome jolt.
“New Neon: Light, Paint and Photography” @ Bedford Gallery at the Lesher Center for the Arts through February 23, 2013.   

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