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Where light and truth intersect
Seattle Times art critic
By the mid-1960s, Marcel Duchamp had long since shot down most preconceptions about what constitutes a work of art and Andy Warhol was busy giving the coup de grâce to any lingering romantic notions. Pop art had bypassed traditional subject matter only to rub our noses in the most blatant advertising, comic-strip and gossip-magazine imagery.
What was left for a smart guy finishing up art school and eager to leave his mark? Bruce Nauman found more questions than answers, more contradictions than easy truths. He hung on to them.
Then one day, while Nauman pondered a neon sign, he saw the light. If art was built on a language of symbols and signifiers, why not go literal with that? He began spelling out his questions and ideas in the acid colors and glaring light of neon.
A group of Nauman's neon pieces from 1966 to 1985 makes up the Henry Art Gallery show "Elusive Signs: Bruce Nauman Works with Light" — a smart, hard-hitting exhibition that's a nice counterpoint to the ethereal Turrell "Skyspace" just outside. Well-displayed in the gymnasium-like south gallery at the Henry, Nauman's work feels very much like an exploration and very much of its time. A nifty addendum to the show in the media gallery next door has Nauman aping Warhol's nothing-happening movies in an eight-minute 1969 film called "Pulling Mouth" that kaleidoscopes a close-up view of the artist's finger-distorted mouth from benign to monstrous to sexual in glacial motion that solidifies into abstract design.
"Elusive Signs: Bruce Nauman Works with Light," 11 a.m.- 5 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays, extended hours until 8 p.m. Thursdays, through May 6, Henry Art Gallery, 4100 15th Ave. N.E., Seattle (206-543-2280 or www.henryart.org).
Nauman set out to be an artist like a child learning his way in the world, open to everything, searching for a path and an identity. He experimented with word games, imagery made of words and pictures, and with abstract installations of shape, light and color. He tried any style or method that might serve his purposes. If the media Nauman chose are now far from novel, the spirit of his investigation still rings true.
Nauman started off in 1966 by tracing the contours of his left side in neon tubing. "Neon Templates of the Left Half of My Body Taken at Ten-Inch Intervals" is a strange contraption, a wall-mounted series of collarlike forms lit in icy green and draped with ominous-looking black wires. The piece looks more like some awful torture device than the primitive self-portrait it is. While Warhol gloried in the slick surface of the era, the marketing campaign that passed itself off as truth, Nauman engaged the demons lurking beneath it. How did he manage to make a glitzy advertising medium evoke vague thoughts of the electric chair and prisoner-of-war camps?
Basically, Nauman is a conceptualist. Each of his neon signs, despite the apparent simplicity, is geared to set off a ripple of ideas that take you far beyond the original words or cartoonish imagery. In an era when women were actively seeking equal rights, Nauman took a bleak view of his own gender group. He portrays men as clowns, conformists and testosterone-fueled raging bulls, whose penises flip up and down on their own accord. Outlined in raw colors that flash on and off to create jerky animations, Nauman's guys march in lock-step or taunt each other, driven by sex, fear and competitiveness. "My work comes out of being frustrated about the human condition," Nauman has said. "And about how people refuse to understand other people. And about how people can be cruel to each other."
That said, he keeps a sense of humor handy. In 1968, while Apollo astronauts were dazzling earthlings with pictures from the moon, Nauman pondered what an artist might do in their place. He composed "My Name As Though It Were Written on the Surface of the Moon." The piece is basically a prolonged stutter — bbbbbbrrrrrruuuuuucccccceeee writ across the wall in neon — a funny gesture that sounds a little scared and inadequate on the one hand, while at the same time coming across gutsy and crude, like a teenager scrawling graffiti on some sacred object. And now, looking back, Nauman's piece seems rather prescient, too. Turns out that essentially all the U.S. did was scratch its name on the moon and come home.
Sheila Farr: firstname.lastname@example.org
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