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  •  REVIEW: KEITH SONNIER

      Arabic Fringe in Keith Sonnier
       Courtesy PaceWildenstein Gallery
      Arabic Fringe
    Neon glow

    Keith Sonnier continues to deploy neon as a technology with metaphysical and alchemical resonance.

    By DEBORAH GARWOOD
    Offoffoff.com


    Keith Sonnier came to prominence during the 1960s, achieving high profile awards and representation at the prestigious Leo Castelli Gallery rather early in his career. Critical attention was drawn in part by the fact that Sonnier had turned to neon, along with a number of other artists coming up in the minimalist era, as a means of directly experienced color. For Sonnier, neon's glowing tubes and brilliant penumbra would always be infused with the magical, sensual pleasures of his boyhood Cajun culture and Bayou bars. He never used it in a lighting fixture, but rather like advertising signage — free form.

    KEITH SONNIER
    Works by: Keith Sonnier.
     SCHEDULE
    January 7 - February 5, 2005

    Gallery: PaceWildenstein (Midtown)
    32 East 57th St., 2nd floor
    New York NY
    Hours: Tues.-Fri. 9:30-6, Sat. 10-5
    Phone: (212) 421-3292

      
    Sonnier's signature style became identified not just with brilliant glass rods and ribbons of neon light, but by the way he integrated lengths of electric wires and transformer boxes necessary for its function into the composition. This approach led to assemblage and experimentation with the gallery as mise-en-scene. One of his important influences at the time was Robert Rauschenberg. Skipping ahead a couple of decades, Sonnier's architectural neon installations in European public spaces from airports to churches have in recent years earned him wide acclaim in an international context.

    Thus, the sexy, funky, beautiful neon sculptures at Pace might be seen as picking up where the artist left off at an earlier point in time. Two of the works on view date from 1968, one is from 1994, and the rest were all created in 2004.

      Zahidi Palm Blatt in Keith Sonnier
       Courtesy PaceWildenstein Gallery
      Zahidi Palm Blatt
    Most bear traces of autobiography through found objects placed in pointed conjunction with the neon. Indeed, the virtue of having the 1968 pieces present is that they highlight the sharp satire and overall intensity of the new work. "Lounge" (1968) and "Step In" (1968) have titles that key the viewer toward ideas about place and personal drama — the interior decoration of a lounge... low budget staging. But otherwise, they're fairly abstract. The picture plane is literally activated by the technical stuff of electric lighting. Cords and connectors, wires attached to incandescent bulbs all become part of a composition wherein the wires (line), sheets of cloth, plastic or mylar (plane), and electric light (color) read as formal elements.

    By contrast, the new works are loaded with rich and complex associations not limited to titles alone. The wall mounted sculpture "Arabic Fringe" (2004) features curved red neon tubes in play against down home chicken wire and tender tawdry bands of lampshade fringe. It has the forlorn yet defiant air of a caged erotic dancer. Stronger, saltier allusions to quackery and voodoo beckon the viewer in the whiskey still-like tabletop configuration of "Doc Dudley J. Le Blanc (Tidewater Series, 1994)". References to the odious war in Iraq, and the attendant loss of ancient cultural artifacts in Iraqi museums and archaeological sites, can be discerned in "Baghdad Relic" (2004), "USA: War of the Worlds" (2004), and "Dismantled Weapon" (2004). Poised elsewhere in the gallery are elegant works in green and yellow neon that celebrate botanical forms of sawtooth palm fronds. The German word "Blatt", meaning leaf, figures into the title of each of these. In the context of the other works, they seem to be reminders that without serious efforts to address global warming and the loss of rainforest territory, ecological disaster on a global scale is becoming inevitable.


      
    It may not be going too far to think of the entire set of works from 2004 as fetish objects, in the Haitian — African sense.  

      
    On the whole, it may not be going too far to think of the entire set of works from 2004 as fetish objects, in the Haitian — African sense. They are doing something; they've been set to work through the vitality of their maker's fears and desires. I only wish that Pace would turn off the track lighting around 4pm so they could glow in the dark. If nothing else, one can get a sense of the works lit by the light of their own illumination in the photographs that illustrate the excellent catalogue for this show. Klaus Kertess's absorbing essay provides a great deal of critical and historical insight into the work.

    Sonnier bridges the seemingly insurmountable distance separating his Louisiana roots, the military industrial complex as it existed in the 1960s and 70s, and the New York gallery milieu then and now. As a great traveler during his long career, he sought to bring influences of cultures from Brazil to India and Asia into his work. As a pioneer of technology, his engagement with the sensuous side of electric light, performances using florescent paint or powder within the architecture of a gallery, and his early use of interactive video display and broadcast media are relevant to a lot of things of interest to art practice today. Sonnier drew upon his whole life experience to reach the vast scale of his recent public commissions. An enduring desire to involve viewers in the creative act of their own lives is key to the experience of his work.

    The Pace exhibition proves that Sonnier continues to deploy neon as a technology with metaphysical and alchemical resonance. Neon is a gas that exists in the universe as well as in bars. Sonnier's capture of it in glass tubing is remarkable, gorgeous, and soulful. If these pieces intrigue you, be assured they're just the tip of the iceberg.

    FEBRUARY 4, 2005
    OFFOFFOFF.COM • THE GUIDE TO ALTERNATIVE NEW YORK


    Reader comments on Keith Sonnier:

  • Sonnier cross station   from alain Dezii, Apr 6, 2007

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