Short winter days, when light is premium, are the perfect time to mount an exhibit like "New Neon: Light, Paint & Photography," opening Thursday and running through Feb. 23 at the Bedford Gallery in Walnut Creek's Lesher Center. There's nothing like a zing of hot pink paint or the zap of snappy, glowing red tubes to brighten one's spirits and the visual landscape.
The manipulation of light is a common artistic practice, threading its way through ancient stained-glass windows, Rembrandt portraits, Louis Daguerre's photographs from the 1800s, and the genesis of neon -- electrified, gas-filled tubular "cocktails" capable of emitting a spectrum of colors -- at the end of the 19th century.
Neon escaped its infancy with the application of a fluorescent coating patented by Frenchman Jacques Risler in 1926. Transformed into a commercial product by its longevity and ability to capture observers' attention -- day or night -- advertisers swiftly discovered what artists have known for centuries: light satisfies a fundamental human craving for direction.
Neon's purposeful history exploded in the mid-1900s, from the jubilant necklace of color circling New York's Times Square to psychedelic signage racing along the Las Vegas Strip. The golden age of neon rendered increasingly voluptuous images, moving beyond "Eat Here" to include majestic fire-engine red horses and artfully outlined guitars and pink flamingos. The fashion world joined the act, too, with eye-catching color adorning purses, paints, pumps and more.
"This is the third show I've curated for the Bedford that explores the concept of light and color," says Bedford Gallery curator Carrie Lederer. "Like many other media-based shows, I find it interesting to circle back to investigate how the medium has changed."
"New Neon" reveals a complex application of the malleable medium. Lederer has gathered the work of 30 local, national and international artists whose use of neon Lederer says extends into "humorous, surprising and sometimes disquieting" interpretations.
Oakland's Barry Underwood pierces his otherwise soothing archival pigment print, "Horseshoe Lake," with a wobbly blue needle of light, forcing the mind to contemplate toxic wastewater. Tim Etchells' "Wait Here" sends its insistent message -- "Wait Here I have Gone to Get Help" from his home in the United Kingdom: Wait? For what and for how long? A viewer can't help but wonder.
Lisa Congdon's mournful "Sarah," an intriguing collage of vintage ephemera, paper and graphite with viscous undertones, gains punch from the judicious allowance of three triangles and one curving, hot pink neckline. The Oakland artist sets neon's sharp tones in a field of neutral browns, blacks and whites, effectively twisting the depth perception -- as pink springs forward and brown recedes.
"I like transforming something old or vintage by adding neon color and more modern elements like geometric shape and pattern," she says, via email. "My work showcases the beautiful juxtaposition between the brown tones and the bold, otherworldly intensity of neon color."
Kristin Farr says once she "went neon," she never went back. "Using neon is a flash to my past. From the '80s crazy patterned neon windbreakers, to the '90s 'hyper color' T-shirts, it was a part of my visual culture," she says.
Her work "Magic Hecksagons," a tight cluster of seven hexagonal canvases painted with kaleidoscopic color, is a cheerful celebration, but also, a visual autobiography.
"I have grapheme-color synesthesia, a neurological condition where my brain associates words and letters with specific colors," she says. "It's a strange and significant benefit." Like Congdon, she finds blending earth and neon tones a curious, fascinating pleasure.
Lederer acknowledges there's an irony in the "New Neon" exhibit in that it builds on the medium's rich, human-made history by returning it to the natural world. Like colorful tropical fish or bright stars, neon as paint or light, captivates.
'New Neon: Light, Paint
When: Thursday through Feb. 23
Where: Bedford Gallery, Lesher Center for the Arts, Walnut Creek
Hours: Noon to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sunday, 6 to 8 p.m. during evening performances at the Lesher
Tickets: $3-$5; free first Tuesday of the month, free with ticket to any evening event at the Lesher;