Elusive Signs

The current exhibit at The Warhol Museum, Elusive Signs: Bruce Nauman Works with Light, is a great example of abrasive art from the ’70s. The exhibit features the art of Bruce Nauman, whose work includes sculpture, video, printmaking, performance, and installations.

Nauman concentrates on the artistic process and output rather than on mastering particular styles or techniques. He is known for his frustration with conventional media; he once said, “It seems to me that painting is not going to get us anywhere, and most sculpture is not going to either, and art has to go somewhere.” For Nauman, that somewhere was neon.

We usually see neon signs as advertisements, but Nauman saw neon lights as a perfect medium to discuss sexual politics and semiotic linguistics. Neon light defies any kind of frame — it spills across the floor and over the walls, and it blinks relentlessly to get Nauman’s message across. One of his pieces, featuring a group of soldiers marching, shows the soldiers’ penises become erect and then deflate as they walk. Nauman’s work is at once crude and comical.

Warhol gallery attendant Keith Devreis had a particularly moving experience with Nauman’s art. “This work is psychedelically sublime, as it builds to a climax and practically screams at you,” he said. “It’s an exemplary extension of Warhol’s work with fluorescent paint.”

Like Andy Warhol, Nauman is drawn to consumerism. He attacks societal norms and consumerism through neon, a medium that itself promotes these ideals. Illustrating this, the text from one neon work in the exhibit proclaims: “The true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths.”