Art Review

Review: Neon Affairs, Emoticons and Lyrical Abstraction Just Barely Mesh

Peter Illig,“thinking of you” and “love system," oil on panel with neon.
Peter Illig,“thinking of you” and “love system," oil on panel with neon. Courtesy of Walker Fine Art
Bobbi Walker, gallery director of Walker Fine Art, which just celebrated its fifteenth anniversary, has traditionally dedicated the front of her space to two solo shows: Apainter would take over the walls, and a sculptor would fill the floors. In the back, she would display a hodgepodge of works by gallery artists. Lately, she's shifted strategies, focusing on group exhibitions anchored by a singular theme. At least that's the idea.

Her most recent exhibit, Metaphors, purports to be one unified show. But I don't see how the works of the two artists in the front who do representational pieces with a retro mid-century quality have anything to do with the lyrical and organic abstract pieces by four artists in the back room.

To me, it only makes sense to talk about these two parts of the show separately.

In the front, Meagen Svendsen created an ambitious installation about mechanized communication called “A Little Birdy Told Me." Svendsen put up a telephone pole, anchored to the floor with a concrete pad, and a fragment of another pole that’s been placed on top of a wall. She strung the poles with telephone wires, making a highly accurate and nearly full-scale model of telephone lines. Carrying the theme further, she covered the north wall of the entry in cast-ceramic telephones — a 1970s model — all done in the same creamy glaze. Adorning the telephones are small, hand-formed bird sculptures and cast hands. The old-looking phones and the genuinely old poles are brought into the present by the birds, which are, after all, known for their tweets. Hand-signal sculptures, displayed adjacently, also evoke time travel, since they function like emojis, conveying emotional responses, as with the “A-OK” gesture.

The other half of this separate duo within Metaphors is Peter Illig, whose suite of paintings combine figural imagery with slogans written out in old-fashioned cursive made of neon tubes. For many years, Illig has been inspired by ’40s, ’50s and ’60s pulp-style illustrations, but using neon signage is a recent development. When I first saw images of this body of work some months ago, I was afraid the glare of the neon would blow away the more subtle visual effects of the painted parts. However, in person, the two disparate components complement each other, since Illig has carefully moderated the luminosity of the neon and wisely toned up the colors he uses in his paintings.

click to enlarge Installation view of Patricia Finley’s pigment-and-resin paintings. - COURTESY OF WALKER FINE ART
Installation view of Patricia Finley’s pigment-and-resin paintings.
Courtesy of Walker Fine Art
For each of the paintings, the neon slogan serves as the title, and the sentiment expressed in neon text is conveyed through the surrounding imagery. In one of the most complex of the lot, “love system," Illig has painted monochrome renditions of a woman wielding a weapon, an empty bed, a man diving, and a rocket ship taking off, among other scenes, to convey the complex reality of a love affair. Others are simpler and more straightforward, such as “thinking of you,” with the red neon of the writing offset by a blown-up portrait of a beautiful African-American woman wearing bright-red lipstick.

The second part of Metaphors couldn’t be more different from this initial section. The work in the front is bold and in-your-face, whereas the works extending into the back are fairly subtle. The latter group includes Farida Hughes's dense abstractions, reminiscent of floral compositions, in which dots of paint float below thick layers of transparent resin. Beyond are Patricia Finley's color fields, with rudimentary renditions of the mountains in paint and resin. Opposite are some splattered ink drawings by Andrew Marcus that reflect on his interest in dance. Finally, the whole thing wraps up with Ana Zanic's gesture abstracts, which recall natural imagery.

Metaphors runs through June 17 at Walker Fine Art, 300 West 11th Avenue, #A, 303-355-8955,
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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia