Jeffry Chiplis's Found Neon Art
By Thomas McEvilley
Art In America
After Jeffry Chiplis graduated from art school, with a B.F.A. in sculpture, some 25 years ago, he didn't make art works for six or seven years. He was not disenchanted with art, but with some of the conditions under which it is practiced and marketed.
Instead, he participated in less direct ways, such as working with an alternative space in Cleveland, called Spaces, where today he sits at board meetings and can still occasionally be seen helping out with hammer and nails on installations.
A few years later, Chiplis began rather quietly making art, which he is still doing. The way he operates involves an attitude - toward a creative profession he saw as degraded by market forces - along with a method and a style. A part of his compromise with the art system has involved incorporating some traits of the outsider artist's type of career.
When I met him by chance on a trip to Cleveland about a year ago, we went out to bars on a couple of nights in the resuscitated Tremont area, which not long ago was a crack-ridden low-rent neighborhood but is now the "art district." Every bar we went to seemed to have a work of Chiplis's in it.
These works were made of recycled neon. Other artists known for their work in neon - Keith Sonnier, Bruce Nauman, Francois Morellet, Mario Merz and, above all, Stephen Antonakos - have bent glass themselves or worked with technicians who bend glass for them to their specifications.
Chiplis, by contrast, does not bend glass and rarely has it done for him by others; he usually works with retired neon signs or parts of them, which he obtains when they are deinstalled and replaced. His process involves recontextualizing chosen elements outside their original commercial uses. His studio is filled with thousands of neon components waiting to be combined into art works - alphabetic letters in different scripts, sizes and colors, plus curves long and short, angles, circles, ripples and other abstract motifs.
Chiplis's emphasis on reclaiming discarded materials is one of the outsider characteristics he has incorporated. His work relies ultimately, and in a kind of ethical way, on the patient, lifelong procedure of finding and gathering used materials (much in the way outsider artist Lonnie Holley did for his vast yard show which once stood near the Birmingham, Ala, airport but has since been demolished for the sake of airport expansion).
Though some of his work has been made for gallery exhibition, much of it is what might be called "bar art" - pieces installed in his neighborhood establishments of conviviality such as the ones we visited together.
If one thinks of the classical definition of the gallery or museum space - say, as described in Brian O'Doherty's Inside the White Cube - the point of this shift of venue becomes clear. The White Cube, O'Doherty argued, involves only the disembodied Eye; no human appetites are permitted expression in it; all reminders of the outside world are excluded. Alienation becomes "a necessary preface to experience."
The traditional neighborhood bar has the opposite traits. It is the place of appetites, of the full person, of exuberant self-expression. Neon, perhaps most commonly seen in beer signs, seems to occur almost naturally there; it thrives in the dark, gleaming with hues at once beautiful and decadent. Extending his quasi-outsider approach, Chiplis disseminates his works into the community, always unsigned, hanging anonymously on the walls of places where people gather and wind down.
The pieces Chiplis has sited in bars are usually his simpler works, tiny gems of wit floating through night-town. Lit (1995) is a small neon among various beer signs on the wall of the Literary Tavern in Tremont. It was part of a sign for Lite beer, with the "e" obscured by black paint. Altered as little as possible from the found condition, it has a stack of meanings: it is lit, because it is a light; it is a sign for "lite" beer, in a bar; "lit" is also slang for "drunk"; and it is the local nickname of the Literary Tavern.
Another prominent bar is Pat's in the Flats. Entering, one sees the massive sign Pat's - simply four letters and an apostrophe, each letter a different script and color, widely spaced out. It is a powerful presence. (Pat, the bar's proprietor, had once remarked to Chiplis, "I would like to see my name in lights.") Farther back in the dark shadows beyond the little bandstand one finds Butch - the altered first word of a Busch beer sign, with the exaggerated "T" suggesting phallic (or ego) inflation.
Neo (1988), installed over the outside bar in the garden of Edison's in Tremont, once spelled the prefix so dear to art historians in letters of radically different scripts. The piece also spelled out most of the name of its medium, neon, offering the quiet suggestion that neon is neo: look at it again. And indeed, the destiny of such works is not to get old. They are irrevocably involved in process, as is illustrated by the history, or evolution, of this piece. As time passed, first one of the three letters of Neo, then another, then finally the third, were broken in bar accidents. Each time Chiplis replaced the broken piece with an unrelated nonlinguistic element, till the work today, by acting out its original mandate ("Make it new," as Ezra Pound put it), has become a completely new thing - the art work formerly known as Neo.
In balancing the positions of the art school graduate on the one hand and the outsider artist on the other, Chiplis has given the art system a kind of tithe. Twice in 20 years (1988 and 2002) he has had solo or two-artist gallery shows, and several times he has contributed pieces to group shows, such as, for example, the neon biennial in Lima, Ohio. And he is currently exhibiting for the first time in Manhattan, at White Box [through Feb. 22].
In his 1988 show at Cleveland's Studio Gallery, the works tended to spell things out - the most familiar function of both commercial neon and neon art.This (1988) translates into neon one of the basic premises of Conceptual art - the principle of tautology, that each thing should be regarded as just itself, and that one should focus directly on the "thisness" of the present moment. This relates to countless works of classic Conceptual art. A prototype can be found in the early work of Joseph Kosuth (who himself often used neon).
In the '90s Chiplis's practice of spelling-out continued, while his works also became more adventurous and pictorial. In the related works Oasys (1993) and Kaos (1994), seen in group shows at Spaces, the alphabet swirls toward meaning with an intense charge that reflects the glowing neon and argon gases in the tubes. Poetry, 2000 (made at the request of some poet friends), embodies the dizzy cavorting of language cast at a higher voltage through the medium of the poem, the opposite of the neutrality of This.
Chiplis's linguistic theme peaked in a large work of 1999, Let Only Sheep. This was a process work, produced at a show called "48 Hours of Art" at Lake Erie College near Cleveland. A dozen artists working in various mediums were invited into the exhibition space, carrying their materials with them, to stay for 48 hours, sleeping in sleeping bags, eating like campers and creating art works which at the end of the two-day period would constitute a show. Chiplis, working with no clear plan, brought in dozens of alphabetic letters in various scripts, sizes and colors. He arranged and rearranged his letters into different readable combinations on the floor, gradually building longer and longer phrases, culminating finally in a sentence in which austere whites and soft blues are dominated by glaring, almost unphotographable reds: Let Only Sheep Dare to Bathe and Age Frankly. There is an absurdity to the command, yet a serious meaning underneath: the separation of humans from nature is presented as a force that has led to shame and insincerity.
Sometimes the pictorial trend comes to the fore and leaves spelling behind altogether. Landscape with Alien Landing (1994), for example, is a neon composition of blue, green, orange and red, centering on a line of hills rising against the black ground. Below, in the valley, lies a lake of green water, with a little stream flowing into it. Above, spaceships descend from an orange height. There is a straight-faced dumbness to the piece, as in an old comic book, combined with a droll wit.
Anther pictorial work, House on Fire (1997), was temporarily installed on an indoor wall of a private home, in the over-the-couch position. But ominously, for a living-room decoration, flames were seen gushing from the window. In a different mood, Wave Line Wave (2000), mounted on the railing of an upper porch of another private home, turns the framing element of the railing into a kind of musical staff on which the pale neon elements suggest a lyrical melody flying by on the air.
Chiplis's most recent works - those pieces featured in his 2002 show at the Asterisk Gallery in Tremont - have broken free of the wall, with it's implied reference to painting, in favor of a sculptural mode. Fully three-dimensional, the new works are meant to be walked around. Five hang on wires from the ceiling, one stands on the floor. Clearly the artist is not making classical modernist abstractions; always the Pop or comic-book affinities of the medium are honored. Yet just as clearly there is an iconographic point to the pieces. Around and About, Again (2002) is a kind of mandala, an image of a universe shining with an inner light. As in traditional mandalas, the center is emphasized, and there is a suggestion of a circle overlaid on a square. In A Little Bit Off (2002) this inner order seems, as the title suggests, slightly askew, since the elements are titled. Neon Eye of God (2002) restores the balance, perhaps overcompensating a bit as it emphatically reasserts the center-plus-quaternity form of the mandala. Here, X marks the spot from which God looks outward, viewing the viewer and the world roundabout with an intimidating intensity.
Bonfire (1999) (first presented at the Lima Art Center's neon biennial of that year), is the most fully three-dimensional work in the recent series. One of three successive pieces by that title, it takes its place on the floor as a freestanding sculpture. At the base, a heap of disconnected curvilinear elements in reds and oranges seems to crackle and flare. Above it, "flames" rise about 4 feet from the floor. Chiplis's recurrent focus on the theme of fire is a response to the nature of his medium - gases blazing away in the safety of a sealed glass tube - and also implies that the structure of art will be burned away by new mediums and new conformations.
Along with the marvelous presence of these objects of light, Chiplis gives us an understated critique of capitalism, converting its commercial adages into an art whose beauty is tempered with a quiet wit and a gentlemanly good humor.
Jeffry Chiplis is exhibiting at White Box in New York City, Jan. 9 - Feb. 22, 2003; works also appear in two Manhattan saloons, Chelsea Commons on Tenth Avenue and The Red Door on Rivington Street.
Author Thomas McEvilley's new book, The Triumph of Anti-Art, a collection of essays on performance and Conceptual art, will come out this spring (McPherson & Co).
IF WE GO OK
By Thomas McEvilley - Art In America, February 2003
Only one work, thus far, has transgressed Chiplis's habitual practice of using found neon. The piece in question was produced for the gatehouses of Cleveland's Lakeview Cemetery - a grand old array of monuments where outdoor art works are commissioned and installed each year. Working with glass craftsman Dana Paterson, Chiplis added some newly made neon components to others that were found.
The gatehouses preside over entering and leaving. Each structure has windows with separate panes; some have two panes on each of four levels, some three, and some four. Behind each pane Chiplis installed one alphabetic letter, forming stacks of four 4-letter words, or four 3- or 2-letter words - each in a different font or script. The messages are addressed both to the dead beneath the ground and to the living who drive in and out.
At the cemetery's principal entrance, the messages are affirmative: the big front window, with four panes on each horizontal level, hold the stack of words "Love, Risk, Play, Know." The four words make up a kind of credo or summation of life. At the exit gate, in a smaller three-paned window, is found another concise evocation: "Age, Sin, Fun, Bye" Elsewhere, on the smallest, two-paned window, appear the little words, If We Go Ok" The playful aspect of the piece - like so many beer signs rising from the land of the dead - has offended some visitors (several wrote to the local paper complaining about it). But the real irony of the piece is that this one time, when Chiplis is using new glass in freshly made configurations, he addresses the past in the form of the dead.