The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2014

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MAR 2014 Issue

KEITH SONNIER Elysian Plain + Early Works

On View
Pace Gallery
January 24 – February 22, 2014
New York

Keith Sonnier’s sculptures infuse the élan and machined elegance of high minimalism with a subtle sensuality. For all their rigidity—the pieces are comprised mainly of large glass or acrylic panels linked with aluminum struts and lit with neon—they emanate a kind of softness. They are also playful and even a bit erotic, adding a significant dose of warmth and humanity to a visual language known for its detached tone and conceptual slant.

Elysian Plain + Early Works consists of 12 sculptures, eight of them dating from last year with the remaining four coming from the late ’60s and early ’70s. All of the sculptures incorporate tubes of neon and rely on the floor as well as the wall for support. In the new pieces, large curved panels made of glass or acrylic pitch slightly forward or lean back, giving the appearance of something slouching. For the most part they are sparse and geometric in design, though any formality is disrupted by the seemingly random holes and frosted patches Sonnier has added to the panels. Neon is his bailiwick, and his colors range the spectrum from cool to warm. Like the work of James Turrell or Dan Flavin, Sonnier’s sculptures transform light into a volumetric presence. It becomes sensual. It has a body. It gives the impression of wanting to be touched.

It is Sonnier’s materialistic response to this latent desire in the work that most distinguishes the artist’s recent efforts from those of his youth. An early work such as “Neon Wrapping Neon IV” (1969) features only the neon tube, situated like a light-up line drawing in space. It is as if neon is wrapping around neon, suggesting touch but not capitalizing on it. Sonnier’s new work achieves this end with the transparent sheets of thick acrylic, glass, and in one case mirror: cut along elliptical lines with many curves and gentle arcs, these rigid bodies give Sonnier’s neon a surface to touch, to spread upon, and to penetrate.

Circuitry also plays a more prominent role in his new work, emphasizing the stark contrast between a bright white wall and a thick black wire. In the Elysian Plain series, the undisguised wires that connect the various neon tubes always form a loop because electricity requires a complete circuit. The electricity flows out of, and back into, a transformer that is plugged into an outlet; this charge is the unseen element that enlivens the sculpture. For an artist like Sonnier, who has long explored the intersection of art and nature, active circuitry becomes a rich symbol of unity, cyclicality, and sexuality.   

In some instances, Sonnier’s neon tubes approximate the slants and curves of the acrylic or glass panels. Works such as “Lobbed Shape” or “Lunar Slice” (both 2013) include tubing that traces the contour of the acrylic panels or runs parallel to the aluminum strut that joins two panels. The effect is of bodies conjoined or embracing. The space between the pattern of light and the slanted panels drops away, as if one body was melding into the other. But what do these bodies approximate? A slice of moon? An abstract lobster claw? From different angles in the gallery one sees different things, as when picking out shapes in clouds.

The show also includes five preliminary sketches that give a sense of how these new sculptures were conceived. Each drawing is rough, wrinkled, and appears thoroughly handled. They accentuate what may be the most phenomenal aspect of Sonnier’s new work: its capacity to attain such a sensual presence without even a trace of the artist’s hand. His oblong shapes, hole-punched and wonderfully balanced, are lit up like gigantic night-lights, or beacons from Elysium. 

510 West 25th Street NY, NY


Charles Schultz

CHARLES SCHULTZ is a writer based in New York City.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2014

All Issues