At first look, you wouldn’t immediately identify Keith Sonnier as a Louisiana artist.
Best known for his use of neon tubing as his predominant medium, the New York-based (but Louisiana-born) Sonnier is usually regarded in the wider international context of minimalist and conceptualist art.
But a new show at the New Orleans Museum of Art makes a convincing case to look at Sonnier’s career in a different … well, light.
“Keith Sonnier: Until Today” contains dozens of examples of Sonnier’s three-dimensional assemblages and video pieces along with a site-specific built environment. Surprisingly, given his more than five-decade-long career, it is the first comprehensive museum survey of his work.
A new show at the Newcomb Museum of Art combines visual art and music with personal narratives and themes of social justice to an extraordinar…
Organized by the Parrish Museum in New York, where it was originally exhibited, the show comes to NOMA with the addition of pieces from NOMA’s collection and explores several of the thematic threads that run through his career with a particular emphasis on the artist’s roots in Louisiana.
The show opens with the stunning “Passage Azur,” a gallery-sized installation comprised of dozens of multicolored neon tubes that ebb and flow along the ceiling and occasionally resolve themselves into masses that resemble clusters of three-dimensional calligraphy. It’s already in the running to be the most Instagrammed work of art in New Orleans this year.
It is accompanied by “Quad Scan,” a recreation of a 1975 sound installation comprising short wave radios broadcasting transmissions from boats in the Gulf of Mexico. Experienced together, the two pieces form the most potent example of how much of Sonnier’s work deals with concepts of networking and communication.
That theme is echoed elsewhere in the show by works like “Syzygy Transmitter” (1995), which resembles a satellite transmitter perched in a gallery corner, and “Trois Pattes,” which likewise incorporates a sound component. Along with a series of three-dimensional works incorporating aspects from traditional Japanese and Indian art, they convey how central the notion of global interconnectivity informs Sonnier’s abstract forms.
One oft-repeated cliché holds that it’s the little things in life that count, while another says bigger is better.
For all of its wide-ranging references to large-scale communication networks, though, there’s a through line in Sonnier’s work that can be traced straight back to Grand Mamou, where the artist was born in 1941.
Sometimes that connection is expressed in Sonnier’s titles, like “Catahoula” (1994), while other works incorporate objects that relate to Sonnier’s experience growing up in Cajun country: one features a central plexiglass component that references the ticket window of the small-town movie theater Sonnier attended when he was growing up, while another incorporates bits of fabric from Carnival costumes.
“These fluorescent light and glass pieces remind me a lot of driving in Louisiana,” said Sonnier in a 1977 interview highlighted in the exhibition. “Coming back late at night, and in the distance seeing a club somewhere in the fog. About the most religious experience I’ve ever had in Louisiana: coming back from a dance late at night and driving over this flat land and, all of a sudden, seeing these waves of light going up and down in this thick fog. Just incredible!”
That environmental character of Sonnier’s work is also present in the exhibition via his extraordinary “Fluorescent Room,” a recreation of a piece originally made in 1970 and previously exhibited in NOMA in 2011. The dark-painted foam rubber walls and platforms of the room are covered with fluorescent pigment, bought to unnatural life by a grid of ultraviolet lights overhead. Visible from the outside through cutouts in the walls, its effect is both colorful and discomfiting; the random streaks and scratches of pigment on the room’s geometric forms read as evidence of some kind of chaotic (indeed, almost violent) activity.
Like much of Sonnier’s work in “Until Today,” there’s a lot of detail to take in — and even more going on beneath the surface.
* * * * *