Dark act doesn't define bright show of Tremont artist
Neon Works in the 21st Century Through May 9 Butler Institute of American Art 524 Wick Ave, Youngstown 330.743.1107 butlerart.com
Youngstown -- The neon sculptures of Cleveland artist Jeffry Chiplis, now on view at the Butler Institute of American Art, are bright and colorful. They're also delicate and vulnerable.
It's tempting to view the scultures as symbols of fragility, given that the artist, a longtime resident of Cleveland's Tremont neighborhood, was shot in the back twice early on the morning of June 12. Two men tried to rob him as he was walking down Literary Road near West Fifth Street to go to the bar Pat's in the Flats to hear music, according to a story by Plain Dealer reporter Tonya Sams.
After treatment at MetroHealth medical Center, Chiplis' condition is improving. On Tuesday, he gave a press conference in which he praised the treatment he received for wounds in his lower abdomen and back and said he was moved by expressions of support from across the city. He also asked the media to leave him alone.
The question now is whether the shooting in any way casts a new light on Chiplis' art.
I think the answer should be no. The assault on Chiplis shouldn't frame an understanding of his work any more than the killing of photographer Masumi Hayashi and sculptor John Jackson in 2006 should offer some kind of commentary on the true nature of their work.
Hayashi and Jackson were shot and killed in their loft apartment building by a neighbor with a history of mental illness after Hayashi complained about ear-splitting music coming from the neighbor's apartment.
Before her death, Hayashi earned a national reputation for photo collages exploring highway interchanges, Japanese-American internment camps from the World War II era and Buddhist Temples.
Jckson, a sculptor, print-maker, painter and a draftsman known for whimsical abstractions with a delicate integrity, participated in the Cleveland Museum of Art's 2005 NEO Shows. [as did Chiplis].
The connection between Hayashi, Jackson and Chiplis, if there is one, is that they and artists like them have made a huge investment in the revitalization of Cleveland in recent decades.
They've helped redevelop entire neighborhoods and have bolstered the idea that the arts are a vital force in the region's economy.
While all three were victims of violence, it should be remembered that artists want to be known for their work, not for the things that happen to them. I doubt that Chiplis would want his sculptures viewed through the lens of the violence visited upon him by a pair of attackers.
That said, it's true that when artworks appear in public space, either in a gallery or a museum, they imply an unspoken social contract. By putting them on view, the gallery or museum demonstrates its trust that visitors will enjoy the work with harming them.
This is especially true of the Chiplis show at the Butler, where a dozen fragile neon scultures are packed into a midnight-blue gallery. They require visitors to move around them carefully, even to duck or step aside in one instance so as not to collide with a piece hanging from the ceiling.
In other words, the sculptures require a civility analogous to the common decency Chiplis or anyone else has a right to epect on the streets of Cleveland. Sadly, he didn't receive that on the night of June 12.
But the real connection between his work and the city is that neon is an urban medium associated with advertising, sinage and the magic of night.
Chiplis clearly is excited by these associations and fascinated by the idea of salvaging pieces of sinage removed from buildings undergoing renovation or demolition.
In a video on display alongside his installation at the Butler, Chiplis eplains that he saves scraps of neon and then recombines them to create unepected juxtapositions and compositions.
A series of neon squiggles becomes a flickering bonfire. Jumbled letters salvaged from a sign form the cryptic message "AR / WE / IN." A sign that had said the words "adult swim" becomes in Chiplis' hands a quirky message proclaiming the odd notion of "a dull swim," whatever that might be.
Chiplis ejoys confounding epectations and discovering unepected meanings in the prosaic world of everyday signs. A large letter "T," turned upside down, becomes the basic structure of a sculture he calls "Chandelier." A group of blue neon camels, apparently salvaged from a cigarette sign, becomes the basis of a quirky landscape he calls "Egyptian Fantasy."
In his hands, the sculptures retain vestiges of their origins but are recombined in fresh ways, with a sense of wonder and ecitement. The aesthetic is fundamentally derived from Pop Art which celebrated the visual flotsam and jetsam of the everyday landscape.
What's often missing in the Chiplis sculptures on view at the Butler is a sense of finality or inevitability. They feel loose and provisional, as if their parts could be disassembled and rearranged in any number of ways.
You wonder whether they're really done, or whether they could keep evolving. They never click entirely into focus. They'd be stronger without that quality of mutability and open-endedness.
Primarily, though, what comes across is a wide-eyed sense of magic and an appreciation for the simple beauty of neon as a vital part of urban life and as something worthy of celebration.
His work is playful and generous, and nothing about the violence of June 12 should change that perception of Chiplis and the ongoing contributions he is making to the city's cultural life.