It's Alive! At the Museum of Neon Art

GELFAND’S WORLD--It was a hollow ball about a foot across, the surface built up out of rivulets of glass. Through the glass channels, light itself moved up, as if it were plant tendrils photographed in slow motion, themselves splitting off into multiple pathways and different shades. We could have been looking at an artistic rendition of the human brain, or a variation on a prop in a science fiction film. 

There is a problem with trying to describe what you see in the Museum of Neon Art using words. There are amazing glass sculptures, but they are more than sculptures because they contain moving parts. But the moving parts are the light that is produced by passing electromagnetic waves through a gas or a plasma. Like I said, you kind of have to be there to really get it. The sculpture described is by Bernd Weinmayer and can be caught at the current show at MONA's new site on Brand Blvd in Glendale. 

by Ed KirshnerAt the show, I met Ed Kirshner of Oakland, California (photo left). He is not just a pioneer in the technology of this art form, he is an engaging teacher who began to explain to me some of the craft (and the physics) of working with plasma. Here, we are using the word plasma to refer to the substance that results when electrons and atomic nuclei are knocked away from each other by electricity or heat energy. What results is the aurora borealis, or the surface of the sun. Plasmas can also exist right here on earth, within a glass sculpture that has been filled with the right gas (or gasses) at the right concentration. When electromagnetic energy is applied to the gas, plasma is created. The effect of this process is to generate light. But in the sculptures we are talking about, the light isn't monolithic like in the fluorescent light hanging over your sink. It spins and crackles and writhes its way up and around. It is almost literally lightning in a bottle. 

If this sounds like something out of a 1930s era monster film like Frankenstein, or a silent era classic like Metropolis, it's not mere coincidence. The lightning in a bottle effect was used by early filmmakers to represent something futuristic. It helped to have a mad scientist wringing his hands and muttering in a vaguely eastern European accent. 

In MONA's new show, the work of Wayne Strattman (Designing the Improbable) has a distinctly Fritz Lang sense to it. In fact, one of his light sculptures is frankly robotic, and based on Lang's film Metropolis

Other works by other artists went from the delicate to the naturalistic, or played on Day of the Dead themes that would be directly understood by southern Californians. 

Mundy Hepburn's work Hummingbird drew a lot of attention as an abstraction based on a natural form. Hepburn is related to the late actress of the same last name, but explained (curiously enough) that this was his first visit to Los Angeles. 

Candice Gawne is familiar to San Pedro folks based on her undersea images which have been shown at the Loft gallery quite a few times. 

The show included a performance by Susan Rawcliffe, who works in clay but is also a musician. She played a glass didgeridoo which itself featured a plasma effect. I have to say I know I'm not in Kansas anymore when I can write a sentence like that last one. 

Michael Flechtner was walking around wearing a portable neon sculpture of a camera. He does interesting work [] including doing the first U.S. postage stamp of a neon sculpture. 

In conversations with the artists, it became apparent that this was more than just a show, as it was also an attempt to bring together some of the foremost practitioners of the art in order for them to discuss the practical aspects of gas sculpture with each other. As Ed Kirshner explained to me, there is a lot of this craft that isn't actually written down in textbook form. I suspect that a record of this meeting would be of interest to art historians half a century from now. 

There is one more point worth making here. In earlier days, neon signs were thought of as just one more bit of the commercial environment -- if not total schlock, then merely plebeian. They were the signs on highway 99 and Route 66 that you could see from a long distance away on a dark night, telling you whether a motel was open or closed. The word neon itself suggested something garish. We even have cultural jokes about part of a sign going dark, like the play titled Hot L Baltimore, or the even older joke about the time that the letter C burned out on the big Sinclair sign. 

But to borrow from critic Walter Kerr, the great art that we recognize in the present came out of the commercial entertainment of its time, whether it was Shakespeare or Casablanca. Likewise, there were a lot of schlocky neon signs in their day, just as there were a lot of Elizabethan plays that we don't remember. But what survives from an earlier era of signage includes some elegant paintings in light. It took a long while for intellectuals to recognize the art in cinema. Perhaps the same evolution will occur for neon. 

MONA is dedicated to preserving and celebrating that commercial work that rises to the level of art while simultaneously featuring modern gas sculptures that are conceived and constructed purely as works of art.


(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at