The last few years have seen neon become mandatory vajazzlement for all new restaurant and bar openings – but this exhibition at the Grundy Art Gallery in Blackpool is a reminder of the power of neon as an artistic medium, instead of decoration for decoration’s sake. NEON: The Charged Line is the most significant survey of neon in art staged in the UK to date, spanning from the 1960s to the present day.
Ironically, famously flamboyant interior decorator Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen (also one of the designers for Blackpool Illuminations 2016) graced the opening. Though he may have been contemplating what shade of magenta leopard print would best accentuate the pieces on show (or so Changing Rooms would have you believe), the gallery’s white walls were the perfect setting in which to admire the visual potency and conceptual trickery of works by artists including Tracey Emin, Gavin Turk and neon behemoth Joseph Kosuth.
Take TIX3 (1994) by Cerith Wyn Evans: spelling ‘EXIT’ backwards, this inverted sign is a directive that’s impossible to follow, leaving the viewer with the disquieting sense that they’ve already taken the escape route, and as though the place they’ve left is sealed behind the wall TIX3 is hung from. Then there are the more visually spellbinding pieces, like Francois Morellet’s Triple X Neonly (2012), a set of three giant ‘X’s drawn across the corner of one room from impossibly long tubes of neon.
All in all, NEON: The Charged Line is both fascinating and captivating – and, as Shezad Dawood’s Epiphany Neon (Tandoori) sign indicates, happy to co-opt neon’s more commercial uses for a bit of artistic humour.