‘Lightness of Being’ is the fifth major exhibition at the new Initial Access Gallery in Wolverhampton. Frank Cohen, fast-building a name as one of Britain’s most exciting and extensive private collectors, has lent the gallery his neon collection, the idea being to shed some new light on the extensive use of neon in contemporary art.
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Since Bruce Nauman's neon poetry of the 1970s, neon lighting has become something of a post-modern artistic staple. The material’s inherently kitsch associations have captured many artists’ imaginations because of its allegorical potential – challenging what the coloured tubes can deliver beyond the ubiquitous fast food or motel signage.
Four artists work is on show here: John Armleder, Dan Attoe, Jason Rhoades and Tracey Emin. Each has quite a different take on the medium. Armleder’s minimalist pieces stand in high contrast to Attoe’s deliberately crude neon caricatures scrawled on the walls of the gallery.
Likewise, Jason Rhoades’ textual light pieces, that combine sexually loaded language with scraps of silk, lace and ribbon offer something quite different to Emin's work. In ‘I know, I know, I know’ Emin, with trademark, bare-all frankness, has simply scribbled in white neon a snippet of her endless interior monologue.
What stands out is the surprising fragility of the medium. When the fluoro tubes are switched off, they’re remarkably dull and devoid of any impact, regardless of the slogan or cartoon. Hence there’s an overriding sense of temporality to each of the pieces, which stops the neon seeming brash or kitsch. And like moths to a flame, whilst the lights are on, it’s hard not to be drawn in.