Spotlight: Neon in Urban Art
Neon has been capturing the attention of artists and viewers alike since the early 20th century. The vapor-tubes were created in the 1910s and have been being shaped and used in advertising since the 1930s. Overtime, the medium has risen to an iconic status. Neon has the ability to set a mood, convey a message, and bring new dimensions to an idea like no other art form. It comes to no surprise that artists have dedicated their careers to working with the unique material. Not only does the art form require physical skill, it takes a specific vision and artistry to continue to push the bounds of this fragile medium.
Whether it’s hand crafting the glass or integrating the tubes with other materials, neon comes with a host of opportunities for artists to inject their own voice and stylistic elements. At Guy Hepner, we are proud to showcase three distinct artists who demonstrate versatility and creativity in their neon work.
Light artist Olivia Steele is known for her short, punctuated truths, which are handcrafted into neon tubes and then set against various surroundings. From signs to birdcages to musical festival installations, her work continues to find home in new spaces while spreading Steele’s sentimental messages. Her work ushers in a new generation of storytelling, with words that somehow become more true when illuminated. Steele explains, “When words are formed in glass and filled with gas, it’s as if they’ve been activated and the process alone is very concrete and absolute, there’s no way back.”
Steele’s statements are able to elicit a deeper emotional response in neon than if they were presented two-dimensionally or in dialogue. The process of physically projecting her emotions proves therapeutic for the artist, but seeing them illuminated adds a certain validity to the viewer’s experience. Her words are powerful enough to light up a room, even if it’s just the provocation for her to make them. Another reason is the relationship between the neon and its backdrop. In Can You See How Much I Loved You?, Steele breaks down the words in the familiar format of an eye exam, adding to the analytical nature of the question. While in You Are Here (Birdcage), the viewer is challenged to see themselves as being metaphorically trapped behind the bars. The scripted lighting is able to give space and attention to words that may otherwise never be spoken. Steele’s work presents her internal dialogue in a way that viewers can interpret visually, and go on to reinterpret in their own frame of reference.
Neon is also commonly associated with the grit and commercial overtones of urban landscapes. Venturing from the street to canvas, it seems only appropriate graffiti artists RISK and Mr. Brainwash incorporate the fluorescent tubes into their paintings as well.
Kelly “RISK” Graval is coined the “Godfather of Graffiti” for good reason. RISK has been an influential figure in the street art scene since the 1980s. He pioneered “hitting up the heavens,” meaning to graffiti as high as possible, which often included him scaling freeway signs and overpasses. Graval has gained international fame by breaking down the barriers between street and fine art, and by spreading graffiti culture into the spheres of music and commerce.
In works such as Tag Neon and Peaceful Buddha Neon, RISK pays tribute to his graffiti roots while adding texture and dimension with materials like recycled road signs, spray can panels, and of course, neon. Graval’s multimedia creations take literal pieces from the place he was raised and made his name: the street. In this way, neon acts as another borrowed material. Graval reimagines city lights usually reserved for advertising and businesses. This time, it’s his signature that is illuminated, or in the case of Peaceful Buddha Neon, his work that is being cast a spotlight on. RISK is able to capture the emotion of walking around a city and, with the addition of neon, communicate the desire to be a part of one’s surroundings as much as they become a part of you.
Mr. Brainwash is the pseudonym for graffiti artist Thierry Guetta. Guetta made his name on the street art scene when he was featured in the Banksy-directed documentary, “Exit Through the Gift Shop.” Mr. Brainwash’s work uses pop imagery and cultural iconography to create a unique fusion of graffiti and social commentary. With a reputation built on hype and the flare for dramatics, neon is the perfect material for an artist always wanting to do more.
In Banksy Thrower (Neon), Mr. Brainwash adds the element of light to an already existing design featuring a stencil of Banksy himself and “Art for Dummies” as an unexpected weapon for social activism. Adding neon bulbs to the word “Art” underlines its importance to a whole culture of street artists and the new generation of activists. Mr. Brainwash also adds emphasis to his recurring message, “Enjoy Life Now,” writing the mantra in bright fluorescence against a reflective background. The style of Mr. Brainwash usually sticks to a strict formula of splattered paint, stencils, and spray paint, with the artist occasionally deviating from canvas to create resin sculptures as in “Life is Beautiful.” A material like neon with its urban context and striking presence, is able to adhere to the artists’ aesthetic while directing the viewer’s attention in a new way.
Gas-tubes once reserved for signage and advertisements have been transformed by artists like these into a more prominent medium we associate with art and decor. As the boundaries of neon art are pushed, the relationship we have with the material will continue to change.