Of Light and Darkness

Article excerpt

Two exhibits on display at The Andy Warhol Museum focus on two major figures in American art, Bruce Nauman (b. 1941) and Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986).

But they do so at very specific times in the careers of each.

Bruce Nauman

Born in Fort Wayne, Ind., in 1941, Nauman grew up in Milwaukee and graduated in 1964 with an art degree from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He lives in New Mexico, but while residing for a time in San Francisco in the 1960s, he was intrigued and inspired by the neon beer signs on storefronts in his neighborhood. That led him to create his first neon piece in 1967.

Titled "Window or Wall Sign," he has said of it that his purpose was to achieve "an art that would kind of disappear -- that was supposed to not quite look like art."

In a way it did. Light as a medium offered Nauman something elusive and effervescent, but also one that could convey a message.

Over the first three decades of his career, Nauman used the medium of light to explore various notions of perception, logic and meaning, but with an added playfulness that characterizes all his art.

The traveling exhibit "Elusive Signs" focuses on the body of Nauman's work that uses neon and fluorescent light in signs and room installations, some of which are his most iconic works, such as "Hanged Man" (1985), which makes a playful reference to the children's word game while providing a biting criticism of current human rights abuses in South America and Southeast Asia at that time.

Although that piece is biting sociopolitical commentary, much of his earlier works use language in the form of signs and symbols, emphasizing the neon as a sign while presenting provocative twists of language. The pieces "Run from Fear, Fun from Rear" (1972) and "Violins Violence Silence" (1981-82) glow on and off in related intervals, emphasizing the inherent wordplay in each.

This series culminates in the monumental, billboard-size "One Hundred Live and Die" (1984), which employs overwhelming scale to bombard the viewer with sardonic aphorisms. Here, 100 phrases like "Laugh and Live" and "Run and Die" spelled out in neon blink on and off in a multitude of varying colors and combinations in carnivalesque fashion.

These light-based works apply irony and humor to the contradictions intrinsic to the human condition and its opposites of sex and violence, humor and horror, life and death, pleasure and pain.

The work is not all neon, however. The center of the main gallery is bifurcated by the 1971 architectural installation "Corridor with Reflected Image." With this piece, Nauman plays with our perceptions of space and depth vis-a-vis a 28-foot long, 10-foot high corridor that's only 4 inches wide. …