There's something magnetic about neon. An object emitting light attracts the eye, no doubt the main reason neon has been so popular for so long as a medium for commercial signs. Executive director of Bergstrom-Mahler Museum of Glass Jan Smith thinks this provides a special opportunity for neon art. "A sense of familiarity with its history in signage gives people an entry point," she told the GLASS Quarterly Hot Sheet, "and the journey into the sculptural realm takes them into a surprisingly new dimension." The museum hopes to guide visitors on that journey with "Bending Brilliance," a neon and plasma group exhibition currently on display through February 19th, 2017.
Work by renowned neon artists from Bruce Nauman and Monika Wulfers, as well as plasma artists Ed Kirshner and Wayne Strattman, is on display alongside work from emerging artists such as Sarah Blood, and even some local Wisconsin artists. Smith told the Hot Sheet in a telephone interview that the exhibition aims to attract new audiences through the novelty of illuminated art; in line with this goal, the museum has started an “Art After Dark” series, allowing visitors to experience the museum in a casual, evening setting.
The museum was inspired by the success of neon exhibitions at the University of Wisconsin-Madison — one of a select group of universities in the country to have a full neon shop. "There seemed to be this great response," Smith said. "It seemed to stretch glass in a different direction, use the art form in a new, cool way.” The museum's curatorial team hoped to harness this power into a community engagement opportunity. “I think the color and light is very appealing to people,” Smith told us.
Primarily concerned with engaging the public, the museum is not afraid to play off of the fantastical and science-fictional connotations of the mediums, especially plasma. “The response that we’ve had to the plasma has been great,” Smith said. “It attracts people, being able to reach out and see an immediate response.” While no art work can be touched, the museum ordered a plasma ball to give this experience to guests. “Spanning the gap between science and art creates a further education connection for viewers,” and Smith thinks these links can not only intrigue, but “transform the experience into a blended level of learning.”
Supporting the exhibition’s lighthearted approach, the “Art After Dark” series involves theatrical performances by local actors. Playing off of works in the exhibition, performances are kept “lighthearted and casual, with little tidbits of information about the art.” Patrons are free to explore the exhibition with a beer or soda in hand. For Smith, this is "trying to attract a younger audience to see the works, enter the medium, and feel comfortable.” And so far, “it’s done that. We’re really pleased with the ones we’ve offered.”
Still, there is serious work to be seen here. A reproduction of Bruce Nauman’s captivating neon spiral, The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths, is on display — the original of which resides in collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. And recent works by Sarah Blood explore the medium in contrast to materials like concrete and fabric, creating thoughtful messages about pressure, fragility, and femininity. Smith thinks that, through works like these, the medium can bridge the divide between ‘high’ and ‘low’ cultures, “transforming part of the american landscape’s history into something new, and taking part of the popular culture and turning it into an art form.”
IF YOU GO:“Bending Brilliance: Neon and Plasma Sculpture”
Jed Schleisner, Tom Galbraith, Bradley Corso, Ed Kirshner, Jacob Fishman, Petrie Fishman, Bruce Nauman, John E. Bannon, Mitch LaPlante, Wayne Strattman, Monica Wulfers, Michael Young, and Sarah Blood
Through February 19, 2017
“Art After Dark,” from 5-7 pm on December 15, 2016; January 19 and Febraury 16, 2017
Bergstrom-Mahler Museum of Glass
165 N. Park Ave
Neenah, Wisconsin 54956