We usually encounter neon through the glass of bar fronts, in looped letters that glow against the darkness. They entice the passerby to drink, enjoy and consume. It’s an association that Sherman Alexie, the local best selling author, has never been able to shake. In his poem “Influences,” Alexie reflects on his childhood growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation, when his parents would leave him in the car with his sisters, in the neon glow, while they drank ‘til close at the local tavern. The poem is a depository of broken promises, pain, neglect and ultimately of love. “But this is not about sadness. This is about the stories,” the poem tells us repeatedly. It is within the strength and joy of this sentiment that Cedar Mannan and Lia Hall, the married artist duo behind Noble Neon, sculpted their latest work.
Noble Neon was paired with Alexie to explore the intersection between poetry and visual art as a part of TEXTure at METHOD Gallery, curated by Mary Coss. After meeting with Alexie to discuss his work, locate themes and watch clips of Indian pow wows, Mannan and Hall reread the poem many times in order to determine what shape their work would take. The result, This is About the Stories is an intricate neon installation that refracts Alexie’s words through abstraction and color. The only literal element of the poem is within the title. Situated between two mirrors that stretch the work into infinity are colored bars of neon reminiscent of a bustle of feathers of a fancy dancer. Beneath this bustle, loops of light lie suspended, flashing off and on with the neon above in a complex animation sequence set to the rhythm of an Indian pow wow song. The artwork is expertly crafted, and by playing with light and the perception of the viewer, it demands to be seen in person.
Because poetry served as the basis for the artwork, This Is About the Stories acts not only as an abstract portrait of the poem, but also of the poet. When Alexie saw the work for the first time, he saw various versions of himself within it. He remarked, “This is a beautiful piece of art but it causes pain for me, the neon makes me think about sitting outside of the bar waiting for my alcoholic parents. That mirror makes me think about the generations of pain that have been passed on.”
Like the poem, This Is About the Stories acts a depository of images and emotions that transcends the boundaries of its medium. In the hands of these artists, neon is reinvented: transformed from a commercial commodity to a sculptural manifestation of the rhythm of words and dance. Reflecting upon their collaboration, Alexie had this to say: “As I think about Lia and Cedar’s art, a phrase keeps coming back to me. Neon if you say it fast enough sounds like ‘kneel.’ When I look at their artwork, I feel like praying and I feel like giving thanks.”
This Is About the Stories is on view at METHOD Gallery (106 3rd Ave S) through February 21. TEXTure also includes collaborative work by Daemond Arrindell and Maura Donegan, and Jeanine Hall Gailey and Carol Milne.