Notes in Neon

tracey emin angel without youExperimental British artist Tracey Emin’s first American museum exhibition, Angel Without You, expands on a long tradition of neon as art, personalizing the use of the chromatic light tubes in creations replicated from her own handwriting and drenched in wrenching emotion.

The debut, in the “Magic City” long associated with the glory (and often garishness) of neon, is more than fitting. “They recall graffiti scribbled on a bathroom wall or entries in a yearbook, complete with misspellings, erratic capitalization and crossed-out words,” wrote Anne Tschida in an article about the exhibit (at Miami’s Museum of Contemporary Art through March 9). Says the artist in an interview with MOCA: “Many of my neons are love poems, not being sent to one individual but to many.”violins violence silence bruce nauman

Emin’s installations derive from an impressive legacy, including that of Bruce Nauman, who has employed neon in distinctive displays dating since the 1960s. In works like Violins Violence Silence (1981-1982), right, critic Gregory Volk noted that Nauman evokes “a carnivalesque world that is part visual wonderment and part uncomfortable confrontation.” Nauman has long explored the deep contradictions in human experience, rendered in philosophical interactions of language and light.

And then there’s the “grandfather” of the neon-as-art category, the elegant minimalist Dan Flavin (1933-1996), whose pieces were often inscribed with dedications to both friends and artists — his The Diagonal of May 25, 1963 flavin diagonal brancusi(to Constantin Brancusi) is pictured left — and whose works exude a soft spirituality that often played off pastels in a medium more known for the bright and the bold.

Emin’s Angel Without You takes neon to an edgier level, adding to an already rich panoply of artistic expression…where, like the title of the Jonathan Foer novel, “everything is illuminated.”

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