Critical Essay

2017 Neon for Sandy Boone and Louis Black .jpg

How Ben Livingston Twisted the Simple Fate of Neon

“We’re Open”, that most iconic ‘sign-in-the-window’ of the American commercial landscape is what usually appears in our mind’s eye whenever we think of the word “neon”. Often lit with garish, in- your-face, over-saturated luminescence, neon has defined its very light source as synonymous with a single message: “Enter the marketplace and make yourself at home.” There is no appeal to lofty aesthetic considerations; it is a base request to enter and spend. Its very lack of subtlety is seen as an advantage: It means what it says and says what it means. Nothing more. It is complete.

Artists who have utilized neon as a medium, most notably Nauman, manipulated its simplicity to ironic and unconventional ends, but it remained materially the same, keeping this most recognizable form of neon unmodified. Even if the art piece in question is three- dimensional, it’s still not a sculpture as such, but rather a conceptual re-rendering of the sign. The message may be different even if the medium is not.

Given neon’s long historical alliance with the craft of sign-making, it would be easy to see its viability as an aesthetic medium as thoroughly exhausted with little artistic potential remaining to be discovered. However, what Livingston has done is to take it one, very surprising step further. He has altered the very form of neon itself, stripping it of its commercial character and exposing its intrinsic sculptural form. Once so closely identified with intensely bold and loud colors, Livingston’s neon has suddenly quieted down to something not recognizably itself. The light it emits has become pleasantly soft, with undulating colors, inviting the viewer to look, not with a shout but with a whispered command to open one’s eyes to a new and unexpected aesthetic. By undergoing a transmutation of sorts—an alchemical changing from a base commercial medium to something much more valuable—Livingston has created a new vessel capable of containing a radically different set of meanings. The glow-in-the-dark quality of this new type of light, made possible from Livingston’s long and close study of phosphorescent minerals, has re-invented neon and opened up an undiscovered avenue of sculpture-making.

With this fundamental alteration of its form, the context of neon shifts from its traditional placement in the marketplace to the art space, (the museum and the gallery) and is illumined primarily by concept, not commerce. Through the reformulation of the material substance of this light source, Livingston also re-imagines what constitutes the lighted space.

The vaunted museum, the pride of the community’s recognition and acceptance of the importance of culture, often takes on the task of educating the local citizens to the finer appreciation of the arts, usually brought in from elsewhere. This top-down approach can seem to convert the walls of the museum into a protective barrier of sorts, insulating the art displayed within, from the ‘contamination’ of the world without.

In his latest exploration with neon and Spirit Houses, Livingston reverses this trend, by rendering very walls of art spaces and museums ‘porous.’ To accomplish it, he imports historically relevant artifacts from the community at large, constructing, in the process, a ‘biography of place’, which ultimately becomes the art itself. In gathering and utilizing a variety of locally sourced materials (wood, glass, found objects, etc.) to supplement the primacy of the neon tube, Livingston offers his work as celebratory referents to the history and importance of the community and its inhabitants.

Through this transmutation of form and context, Livingston’s palette issues a welcoming invitation for audiences to recognize themselves and embrace a humanity allowed to migrate to and from the museum with ease. As with all things of relevance, his art makes a cyclical return to the beginning, courtesy of Livingston, that beckons the viewer to ‘enter and to make themselves truly at home’, in response to a gesture that one hopes will never go dark: “We’re Open”.  

Jeff Ragsdale, Whitney ISP Fellow