Where do we find neon lighting nowadays? They still glow out of liquor store windows and behind bars. They illuminate luxurious, minimalist stage designs at the theater. We sometimes see them in contemporary films that try to capture a mood of the past, while not necessarily being set in the past. Neon is dreamy, holds a shrewd kind of longevity, and is rather expensive. (Like the resurgent mad love for vinyl records, neon is a touch of analogue in an ever more digital, pixelated world.)
“Neon Shadows” is John Powell’s latest exhibition of new work. It is also his final. Powell passed earlier this year at the age of 73. That his final show is at the Howard Yezerski Gallery is fitting, as Powell had had a long relationship with the gallery. Hiding around the space are a few of his works on permanent display, including a touching neon tribute to his spouse titled “Shed Roof.”
Powell’s medium is light, both natural and artificial. Those acquainted with Boston will recognize his large-scale “Light Bridges” public art works, the most iconic being his Technicolor lighting of the Old Northern Avenue Bridge. All of the new pieces in “Neon Shadows” consist of neon tubing, and the majority have neon playing upon Polymetal (one with aluminum) that Powell salvaged himself.
Powell’s final studio was located in Allston, Massachusetts, and “Neon Shadows” is drenched in Allston’s youthful, grinding energy. A walk through the exhibit feels like a walk around the neighborhood on a humid late summer night. The works feel as if they originated on the corner of Park Vale and Brighton avenues, the heat of a college bar off of Commonwealth or in an old rock venue with its own neon piping beginning to fade.
The exhibit is nostalgic without being sentimental. Powell has a directness that negates mushy remembrance. The feeling is vivid, cold and moving. The atmosphere is hazy. The lenses of our rose-colored glasses have been replaced with ones of neon aromanticism. But above all, the works feel peopled: they come alive when you situate yourself or someone from your past in relation to them.
This is not to say that the pieces lack emotion. They are teeming with them. The first piece of the exhibit, “Red Line on Black,” is a searing red tube of neon that is crumpled, like a piece of discarded paper, at its center. Against the black Polymetal backdrop, it pulsates with an energy that lasts, even as you wander through the rest of the show. It shares a similar mood with “Red Yellow Line.” Consisting of two tubes of neon contrasted with a cut out slab of aluminum before them, they are reminiscent of a brake light caught travelling in a long exposure photograph. The tips of the yellow light are a gassy blue.
Two works — “Mandel” and “Hidden Agendas” — are nearly identical, but offer strikingly different images. Both have a small halo of neon (“Mandel” is yellow; “Hidden Agendas” is red) and their effervescence play off a thin disk of metal. In the dark of the gallery, the two works give the most spatial depth. “Mandel” seems like something planetary. The contrast between metal and neon gives the illusion of an eclipse one would see in a lustrous photograph from NASA, set from an angel impossible to see on earth. There’s a more human aura produced by “Hidden Agendas” as the plate of Polymetal sits lower, to the right, seeming like a friend or lover’s head profiled by a neon advert hanging behind the window of a poorly lit dive bar.
Perhaps the most arresting piece is “Blue Horizon.” In a collection of minimal works, it stands as the sparsest: simply a horizontal tube of blue intersected, on the left, by an arch of red. “Blue Horizon” is the center of the exhibit and is one of the larger works, measuring 24 by 48 inches. It seemingly holds a piece of all the others; a kind of culmination of the atmosphere Powell meticulously created.
The exhibit ends with “Blue Line.” A twin to the aggressive “Red Line on Black” that starts the show, “Blue Line” is a balm. It has a calming energy paired with certain finality that leaves one soothed.
One of the small beauties of “Neon Shadows” is the smoky magenta that the collective tubing “paints” on the gallery walls. The haze situates. It puts forth an atmosphere that is unnerving, dreamlike, but also lived, a feeling of knowing that is unexplainable but familiar. And perhaps this unexplainable familiarity is one of the key questions that Powell tinkered with decade after decade: how does light — manipulated or not; absent or present — illuminate those intangible things within us, like a memory or a mood? How can light be used to clarify what dwells in our sub-consciousness the way it does the objects before us?
(“Neon Shadows” is on view through March 17 at the Howard Yezerski Gallery, 460 Harrison Ave., Boston, Massachusetts. For more information, call (617) 262-0550.)