What a tediously long-lasting trend neon sculpture has turned out to be. If I had a dollar for every exhibition I’ve been to that features a word spelled out in glowing pink, or a dull shape in radiant Insect-O-Cutor blue, then I could have retired from art criticism years ago. What is the semiotics of neon these days anyway? You might have once argued it was a nod to the seductions of the advertising and entertainment industries and feel smug about your immunity to them. Artists looking to show off their cultural literacy would have said it evoked film noir, or that it recalled a Kraftwerk song. Lately, neon art just looks like all the other neon art you’ve seen.
There’s an illuminated sign suppliers one block south of Bortolami Gallery in Tribeca. I wondered whether all the neon works in Virginia Overton’s show ‘Água Viva’ (Portuguese and Spanish for ‘fresh water’) might be a reference to the neighbourhood’s mercantile past, but they turn out to be about plumbing. Yes, plumbing. Thrillingly titled Untitled (Cold water supply line) (2018), Untitled (Ice maker supply line) (2019) and Untitled (Hot water supply line) (2019), each one of these squiggles of light hugs the bent shape of a copper or brass water pipe. The press release describes them cheerfully as ‘colourful line drawings’, though they look like the scrawl of a signature on a touchscreen. One of them is called Untitled (Lamp rod) (2019), which makes a switch from plumbing to the electrical trade, and the realm of unabashed literalness.
The exhibition’s title implies that water will be a theme throughout. There is the spectacular Untitled (Cement Mixer / Water Fountain) (2019) – parts from a cement mixer reconfigured into a working fountain. Untitled (V) (2019) is a polyester sheet hung slack on the wall at waist height and printed with Botticelli’s Birth of Venus (c. 1485). It looks like a souvenir shawl or giant tea-towel from a museum, the folds hiding sections of Venus floating on her giant clamshell. Close by sits Untitled (reflecting pool) (2015). This is a large tractor tyre laid flat and suffocated in stretch wrap and packing blankets, resembling a modern clamshell floating on a poisoned sea. Elsewhere there is Untitled (plant painting) (2019) – an elephant ear Colocasia plant placed close to a white canvas, the leaves casting shadows onto the blank screen, as if in joint homage to Marcel Broodthaers’s potted palms and Tony Conrad’s ‘Yellow Movie’ paintings.
Plants need water to survive, although the point seems stretched. But water also allows organisms to grow from one state to another. Follow that line of thought and Overton’s show becomes animated by the idea of transformation. ‘I pin down sudden instants that carry within them their own death and others are born,’ wrote Clarice Lispector in her 1973 book Água Viva. ‘I pin down the instants of metamorphosis and there’s a terrible beauty to their sequence and concurrence.’ A construction machine becomes a fountain, a priceless Renaissance painting appears as a cheap memento. Soon an altogether more poignant, ‘terrible beauty’ emerges from the show. The taro plant is turned into a silhouette image, a shadow of itself. The jungle is reduced to a representation, stuck behind Plexiglas and illuminated by artificial bulbs. These objects are a vision of a world to come, run-down and resource-scarce. A life in the ruins, in which people must get by and make do through imaginative repair and repurposing. A world in which art galleries will all one day be gone, consumed by water.
‘Água Viva’ was on view at Bortolami, New York, from 3 May to 15 June 2019.
Main image: Virginia Overton, Untitled (Hot water supply line), 2019, copper, neon, glass and walnut, 59.7 × 271.8 × 142.2 cm and 106 × 167.3 × 13.3 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Bortolami Gallery, New York; photograph: John Berens