Competing neon signage announcing all manner of offerings is a given in our everyday lives; their sole goal being to entice people to enter and spend: Open 24 Hours, ATM Inside, Cocktails, Motel, Take Out, Drugs, Cosmetics, Casino, Good Food, Good Times, or the equivalent in images. It's such an effective marketing tool because the glow that neon emits at night is so mesmerizing — or intrusive, depending on your point of view. But in the hands of many artists past and present, neon has been reimagined beyond commercial use. You will find works that are calls for activism and social justice, remarkable expressions of beauty and humor, as well as ways to commemorate what's been lost, and images in the darkest of night to bring us closer together.
Here are some neon artists we are following, the first of whom we were introduced to in the Hollywood home of art collectors Tina Perry and Ric Whitney.
"Tina and I have long collected Patrick's work and have admired his growing practice. He's an artist who not only is willing to take creative risks, but has an artistic point-of-view steeped deeply in his personal roots," shares Whitney, who owns many pieces by the Los Angeles–based artist, including three of his neon works. "The use of neon in his work is yet another approach in his creative arsenal that helps illuminate his perspective, particularly via text expression."
Martinez was inspired by small-business neon signage in his hometown and across the country, "that speak to a community aesthetic I borrow from. The keyword for me is community — I try to place these neon works back into that space of commune in many different ways," says the artist. "Much of the wording in the neons comes from American literature, past and present. I believe in the original book context these served as warnings or reminders, from that I wanted to create warning signs and stark reminder objects that contaminate space with a specific color palette of neon found in storefronts."
"I enjoy how people organically take images of these pieces and use them in different ways," adds Martinez, who released a limited series of remixed lawn signs, distributed by Charlie James Gallery in Chinatown, with proceeds benefitting the ACLU. "During these cruel and meaningful times, they have become a digital protest sign on social media and on people's front lawns and windows with the remixed election lawn-sign project. This usage for me is rewarding because at the end of the day I want to be useful."
Also based in L.A. is Maldonado, who is part of the She Bends collective of womxn working in neon: "Initially I was attracted to the medium as a child growing up in Las Vegas, as a representation of adult autonomy," she recalls. "As I grew up and pursued illustration, though, I realized that I could harness these glowing lines of fire for phrases of emotion, and I became obsessed with learning how. Also, the tactile experience of working with glass is unbeatable to me."
Her latest work has her "thinking of different ways that people mark, keep, and experience time, and also how one's representation of self can be liberated through the use of signifiers or totems. The next few works will be exploring those ideas."
Los Angeles is not only home to a vibrant community of neon artists, it also has the longest-running museum dedicated to the art form, the Museum of Neon Art. "California was a leader in light and space movement and this legacy still has its effect today. Many L.A. artists are informed or influenced by with a legacy of Ferus gallery, Ed Ruscha, Corita Kent, and a pop sensibility," notes its executive director, Corrie Siegel. "Within the spread-out systems of neighborhoods in Los Angeles, signage and neon become a landmark, visible from a speeding vehicle and also ingrained in many artists' memories of place, or understanding of semiotics, context, and meaning." This leads us to another local artist who has been featured at the museum.
3. Dani Bonnet
We were first introduced to Bonnet's work at Los Angeles County Store, where her Fortune Teller piece invited people to receive a thumbs up or thumbs down to questions regarding their futures. Visitors of all ages were instantly charmed by the interactive nature of the piece, especially when the response was a positive one.
"Dani Bonnet learned the craft of working with neon growing up in a family that fixed neon signs for a living. She uses the skills she learned from a young age to create works of art that invite viewer interaction," says store owner MaryAnn LoVerme. "Her work transcends the typical way we usually see neon, as functional and even gaudy signage, and gives us a new way to see and appreciate the medium."
"I was attracted to neon probably by the same magic that attracts flies to lights. The glow is so charming you can't escape it, it consumes me," says Bonnet, also a member of She Bends, and whose online store features pins of her neon works.
We leave the States for Hong Kong, the home of Kwan, who works in different artistic mediums — from painting to new media art and large installations — and designs quite stunning neon pieces friendly for the home as well. "Neon signs have long been an iconic part of Hong Kong's visual landscape holding cultural significance," says the artist. "Growing up in the city, I have always been captured and inspired by its unique aura and feel deeply connected to it."
The multi-award-winning artist, whose work has been exhibited in many countries, first started using neon elements in her paintings, before adding "different types of neon light to create artworks from smaller pieces to large public installations."
"I work with neon instead of other types of media when I feel it would bring out and complete the piece with its own distinctive quality," says Kwan. "With a strong presence that captures attention and bathes its surroundings in a soft glow, it allows the artwork to become fully alive and express itself."
Founder and creative director Natalie Jarvis leads the team of the Melbourne-based Electric Confetti. Launched in 2015, the company has a very spirited line of LED neon products for the home and also produces custom pieces for every occasion.
For neon enthusiasts, visiting Electric Confetti's online store is akin to a kid in a candy store, with numerous colorful and whimsical messages and designs to decorate one's life. Game controllers and praying hands, different types of fruit and animals, the classics such as lips and rainbows, as well as stars and planets can be found.
Eager to explore more of the neon art landscape?
Back in Los Angeles, MONA's Corrie Siegel offers us lists of more artists to watch, and shares the trends she's most excited by: "The use of neon as a symbol of protest, political dissent, or excavation of systemic inequity in works by Steven Paul Judd, Maya Stovall, Meryl Pataky, or even its use as a protest sign like those made by Danielle James and Tori DiPietro." Other artists to follow are those who use "neon as an aspect of performance in works by artists Ginger Q, Lily Reves, and EJ Hill, as well as dimensional neon, that takes on a sculptural form, like work by Maldonado, Michael Flechtner, and Linda Sue Price." Enjoy!
Author and book editor Teena Apeles is a collector of vintage pieces and untold stories. She writes about art, culture, design, activism, and history, and edits books on an even wider range of subjects. She is the founder of the women-led creative collective Narrated Objects, which released the anthology Dear Seller: Real Estate Love Letters from Los Angeles, a unique exploration of the lives and homes of Angelenos, and We Heart L.A. Parks, an artful and education guide to the city that reminds us how safe and accessible public parks strengthen communities.