Language and technology are constantly changing and forcing people to adapt their ways of communicating. Even the most enthusiastic first-adopters occasionally find reason to pause and reflect on how these developments are altering the social landscape, and many artists are tackling these developments in ways that can be as critical as they are whimsical. Dylan Neuwirth’s show MMXIV at Vermillion is a fantastic example of this. It’s leery and humorous, aesthetically appealing and ambiguous in its content. It is the best sort of minimal art—deceptively simple but impossible to unpack in brief with regard to its content.
Neuwirth’s oeuvre tends toward the colorful, using vivid neon to create beautiful geometric forms and eerie messages with the light peculiar to neon, which can be soft and garish at once. Neon does not project so much into a space to light other things. It draws attention to itself, insists on its own form. In MMXIV Neuwirth has used it to make cheeky statements in netspeak and alterations of youthful vernacular, memes and stock phrases—cheekbones, ringtones, “tag you in hell.” It is very of-the-moment, but as a document of the time it has lasting resonance.
These phrases are in the most sterile, starkest white in the neon spectrum. It’s a cold fire. To look on them directly is searing and it takes a moment for one’s eyes to adjust, in a way defying the typical use of neon. One is ready to avert one’s eyes after a moment, and yet they draw the eye in the periphery. Hence, there is an actual physical reaction to the works, and they are indeed eye-catching. By using single tubes bent into cursive writing, Neuwirth turns even trite initialisms into things of beauty. How often does one see “lol” and “irl” on the net? Quite often if one uses social media. But how often does one see them or any abbreviation in cursive? Who knew that “irl” could be so lovely as it is in Neuwirth’s work?
It is rather poignant to note that cursive itself is being phased out as an obsolete method of communication. It may no longer be taught in school, and some are crying foul that this will mean that future generations will find cursive texts to be indecipherable. Others are saying that in the coming paperless society, it will be unnecessary, that all will be digitized and the sans-serif shall reign supreme. It’s possible, but Neuwirth makes a quiet case for it simply in its aesthetic value.
Apropos of the paperless society, the installation in Vermillion is a departure for Neuwirth in another way. His work is usually pristine, afloat on a wall with the power source discreet if visible at all. For MMXIV the cords trail to the floor where the power supplies are strapped to cinder blocks. There is a modern tendency toward abstraction—from images to our own bodies—that often willfully hides the flawed physical nature of things. The abstraction of the Web and our devices belies the guzzling of energy, physical housing of data in distant locations, and landfills and junk drawers full of recent but obsolete devices. Neuwirth’s hovering words are tethered to a concrete reality—literal, but not too on the nose—that is hard to overlook.
Neuwirth’s work also makes a covert statement about how physical art can be digitized—which is to say that it can’t be, not really. The immediate experience of a work of art in a physical space cannot be replicated on a screen. Images of art are shared frequently through social media, but these images do not capture much detail and are often little more than a flicker in one’s feed. Neuwirth’s work poses a direct challenge to camera that would try to document it. The camera cannot yet compete with the physical eye, especially when the work is a light source. Snap a shot of Neuwirth’s installations with a phone camera and they will seem to hover in a void as the sensors reduce everything but the light source to blackness, including the cords and boxes that give them their light.
In fact, the installations are more easily legible on the screen. In this rather brilliant twist, the work enters the digital realm as a inversion of the customary black on white Arial. It enters as white on black cursive, easily shared and read and still in the parlance of the Web, but utterly altered from its true form. It lives dual lives and is effective in both, reminding you that you are only getting half the story unless you see it with non-mechanical eyes. It’s enough to make you T___T and lol at the same time. For realzies.
Dylan Neuwirth’s MMXIV is on display at Vermillion through February 8.