Dreaming in Neon
Neon artists sculpt poetry in light and color
Cleveland Free Times
September 17, 2003
Ultimately, all art is about light. Light animates painting. It defines sculpture's mass. It gives photography - whose very name means "light drawing" - it's existence.
So it's not surprising that, in the mid-20th century, artists began thinking about using light itself as a medium. By the early '60s, Dan Flavin was creating his arrangements of fluorescent tubes, and Stephen Antonakes began his pioneering work with neon installations. Since then, other artists have explored neon's potential. Currently two Cleveland artists are working primarily in the medium of the gas-filled glass tubes we know as "neon."
Dana Paterson and Jeff Chiplis have collaborated in the past, for a show at Asterisk Gallery last year and in an installation at the Lake View Cemetery. But each approaches the material from a different angle.
Chiplis got his B.F.A. in sculpture at Indiana University. He gave up making art for a while after graduation because, "I couldn't sell my crap, and you can only give away so much."
On a visit to Bloomington around 1980, he spotted a neon-trimmed island at an abandoned service station. "I stole it, put it in my Chevette and got it back to Cleveland. Then I started looking for more abandoned signs."
Unlike many neon artists, Chiplis has never gotten into the process of bending glass himself, relying on friends who work at sign companies to find discards for him, which he assembles into new work.
His current show, Neon Repoetry, is a series of pieces based on words. Sometimes the laconic phrases make weird sense, but more often the juxtapositions of words carom off each other, sparking unsettling associations. The varying sizes, type styles, colors and brightness of the words jostle each other and create shifting hierarchies of emphasis. "If Natural Beauty A Risk Tax Love Or Sin" reads one sign. The soft luminous pink of the large word, "beauty," casts a dominating glow over the smaller green "risk" and the tiny, albeit bright, spidery yellow "sin" at the bottom.
Paterson, whose father was a painter, went to Bowling Green State University, but left to make jewelry. Eventually he found work with sign companies in Cleveland, where his interest in neon was kindled. Paterson creates his neon elements himself, bending the glass and processing the tubes.
A fellow artist showed him a book of '50s pinups, which sparked his imagination. He blew them up, simplified and exaggerated their curves and rendered them in neon. Miz Missle, with her lush red curves and a flying tangle of green and purple hair, is a dynamic creature, animated by light. Paterson uses inert gases to create art that's anything but inert. His glass-filled tubes are all in motion - swirling, surging, racing. Dolphins En Route to Fun City features a trio of dolphins parading jauntily, virtually jumping off the wall. The repetition on an element with slight variation, which crops up in many of his pieces, is a tribute to his admiration for Andy Warhol.
Some pieces, like Dolphins and Argon Asp, a maze-like pair of snakes that shimmer a muted green like phosphorescence in the woods, highlighted by sinister red eyes and tongues, are basically two-dimensional. Others are more sculptural. The linear, abstract Shape Scape I swoops and soars like a roller coaster, interrupted by coiled bursts of yellow and purple that give the piece 3-D interest.
Paterson and Chiplis create works whose surface appearance is similar to the commercial signs we see every day. Yet each reworks the material in a way that makes us look again.