view, Sirens and Other Neon Seductions,
Art Galleries, California State University, Northridge, California
February 17–March 31. 2001
LAKICH: Sirens &
Other Neon Seductions
Catalog essay by Louise Lewis
In a dazzling array of light, the CSUN Art Galleries discard the last vestiges of the 1994 earthquake and celebrate their physical rebirth in new facilities with Lili Lakich: Sirens & Other Neon Seductions. The artist's invigorating and provocative imagery acclaims the architectural setting of the exhibition with both individual works and her premier installation piece, Sirens.
In paying tribute to Lakich, whose work has helped keep neon sculpture alive in the art world without divorcing it from its populist origins, the CSUN Art Galleries also herald her move into the realm of installation art. A genre that is enjoying considerable popularity at the turn of the twenty-first century, installation art forces reconsideration of both the artist's and museum's utilization of architectural space and their re-vision of art/life.
Life one hundred years ago, at the beginning of the twentieth century, was characterized by the phenomenal growth of urban populations, consumerism, and leisure time, enhanced by the continued advances of the machine age. The addition of electricity to the urban grid increased the range of nightlife activities and enhanced a city's magnetism. In 1912 the Frenchman Georges Claude invented a process to utilize neon (from the Greek word for new) as a versatile lighting alternative to Edison's incandescent light, originally seeing it solely as architectural embellishment. His partners convinced him of neon's potential for advertising signage, and soon Claude had a virtual monopoly on neon produced in Europe and abroad. In 1923 neon was introduced in the United States by a Los Angeles car dealership, and soon thereafter became the American medium of choice for municipal outdoor advertising.
Neon enjoyed its heyday in this country from the thirties to just after World War II. The surplus of electrical power allowed extravagant displays of kinetic imagery to enliven commercial and entertainment districts of major urban centers, as well as small town oases dotting the desolate stretches of the American Plains and Southwest. Just after mid-century, however, neon lost favor to plastic and fluorescent signs and did not see a resurgence until artists such as Chryssa, Martial Rayssé, Keith Sonnier, Bruce Nauman and others introduced it to the world of art.
Lili Lakich created her first light sculpture, a self-portrait with lighted teardrop, in 1966, while she was a student at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York. At the time artists such as Chryssa and Rayssé were exhibiting their pioneering works in neon in New York galleries, and influenced by their example, Lakich opted to work in this still experimental art medium.
Lakich moved from New York to San Francisco, and ultimately settled in Los Angeles in 1968. In this city, site of the first American neon sign, Lakich was to bestow another hallmark in neon history when she co-founded with Richard Jenkins the Museum of Neon Art (MONA) in 1981, dedicated to both the preservation of historic signs and the exhibition of contemporary neon sculpture. At this time she enjoyed tangible success with experimental works of her own for exhibition and with commissions for private collectors and business enterprises. Throughout her career, Lakich has maintained this tenuous balance between “high” and “low” art, never losing her attraction to popular and even garish signs enjoyed since her childhood, while simultaneously exploring the conceptual possibilities of neon in combination with metal sculpture.
The vital alliance between vernacular and vanguard applications of neon in Lakich's mixed media sculpture is one of several recurring themes in her work. Others are autobiographical references to her nighttime travels across this country and in Europe with the corollary interest in environmental spaces, the emotional tolls and rewards of personal relationships, thematic variations of international art historical masterpieces (African masks, Byzantine icons, Japanese woodblocks, Italian Renaissance and Modernist paintings), and a witty, sometimes acerbic, tone in her social commentary.
The artist's first major sculptures were large wall reliefs, neon drawings on heavy black metal supports. Utilizing popular symbols such as military insignia, product logos, and tattoo designs, these reliefs reflect influences of popular signage with their bright and glossy aura. In Scar (1974) the panther is borrowed from an embroidered army patch, the skull and cross bones by a tattoo pattern, and the blood drops by the sperm border of Edvard Munch’s Madonna (1895-1902). Similarly, Blessed Oblivion (1975) mimics a tattoo emblem of a panther entwined by a python, with the whimsical addition of a neon vase to complete the spatial arrangement. In a more psychological tone Love in Vain (1977) contains a photographic enlargement of a heroin addict from Life magazine, altered with dissonant neon lines to become the tortured form of female-as-chair in a private hell.
Finding the large metal frames a difficult format to transport and install, Lakich began working in smaller formats, initially keeping metal as the support backing. Her series on European art icons, specifically, Mona (1981) after Leonardo, Venus (1983) after Botticelli, and Woman in Film (1989) after an unsigned engraving from the Pre-Raphaelite School maintained the rectangular format of the originals, but jolted the imagery into a new world of flash and electric color.
When she discovered the versatility of honeycomb aluminum, Lakich broke from the rectangular format of earlier works and extended her range with a variety of sculptural shapes. The appropriation of widely recognized art images takes a much more experimental turn with her Icons series, in which honeycomb aluminum serves as the sculptural matrix upon which neon lines create faces evocative at the same time of Western and non-Western sources. Holy Ghost (1983) utilizes the reductionist lines and geometric shapes of one of Jawlensky 's constructivist heads. Saving Grace II (1984) reverses the aluminum base of Holy Ghost, incorporates more colored neon, and inserts an electrical conduit to suggest the crown of thorns of Christ, borrowing from the richness of the Byzantine religious imagery of the Serbian Orthodox Church. Inspired by masks from the Ivory Coast and Mali, Mambo (1992) overlays the same aluminum head base with highly ornate and abstracted shapes denoting facial features.
Icons of more recent vintage, that is, products of the mass media, are the subject of Lakich’s sculptural homage to rock and roll. Chuck Berry is venerated in The Ghost of Rock ‘n’ Roll (1987), a variation on a Japanese print by Toyokuni, and a publicity photograph of the music great, amplified with the addition of an actual guitar. Elvis II (1988) harks back to the era of the fifties and sixties with boomerang shapes, crackle neon tube, vibrant wavy lines and the King's trademark stance. The spectacle of these media icons with their stringed instruments brings to mind the ingenious neon violins and pianos “played” by chorines in Busby Berkeley's Goldiggers of 1933, one of the earliest uses of neon in a Hollywood extravaganza.
In contrast to the more public images of the Icons, the Portrait series affirms Lakich's introspective nature. In visual tributes to lovers in her past, Lakich reveals unique traits of each person. With The Warrior: Portrait of Robin Tyler (1980) Tyler's spare, multi-hued profile floated on a rectangular copper base echoes the strength seen in a cigar box adaption of an Amerindian chieftain. Donna Impaled as a Constellation (1983; drawing, 1982) is a bittersweet interpretation of the subject's interest in cosmology; the diagonal figural silhouette is pierced with straight and curved glass lines suggesting an ephemeral stellar outline. Mary Carter is the subject of two portrait studies in this exhibition: Requiem II (1988) is strongly metaphoric, portraying a Christ figure with crown of thorns and chest wound, and suggesting the religious preoccupations of this long-term companion of the artist. Sweetheart (1993), also a half-torso figure, is a sculptural valentine, its curves, bold patterns, bright colors, and pose reminiscent of one of Henri Matisse's nude cutouts.
The AIDS series underscores Lakich's humanitarian and activist involvement through her art. In her essay on the responsibility of artists to society, Martha Rosler states, “The immediacy of AIDS activism and its evident relevance to all levels of the art world, including museum staff, brought politicized art far more deeply into the art world than, for example, earlier feminist activism had.”1
Fragments for Gates to Times Square II, 1966, programmed neon/plexiglass Whitney Museum of American Art, New York