neon: burning light at gallery munro houseBack
Leeds city centre now is brighter at night now than it has ever been, although you don’t see as many neon lights as you once might.
LEDs and digital screens, like those at Trinity Leeds, are becoming the retailer’s illuminated advert of choice, while those who can’t afford the cutting edge hide the raw glass tubes of their signs behind decorated plastic fascias.
Shaped neon signs are now the preserve of deliberate nostalgists, like the fifties-cinema style of the front of Belgrave Music Hall, or of art galleries like Gallery Munro House, where Julia Bickerstaff’s exhibition Neon: Burning Light raises glowing, gas-filled tubes to an art form.
Neon lights are a hundred years old; Julia has been making them for a quarter of that time, and her sculptures tilt towards different moments and styles in neon’s history, linking the pioneering advertising of 1930s-50s USA with the gallery-bound art of today, via a tour of choked mid-century Yorkshire.
The bright pastels of a neon birthday cake, complete with candles, hint at welcoming diner lights by the side of a broad, empty, American highway; while Dreamscape brings neon back to the English urban landscape with a glowing rendition of the skyline of a half-dreamt Wakefield.
American advertising is the use most readily associated with neon, whether at the centre of the world at Times Square or on the desert fringes of a still growing Los Angeles, but when the neon is in an exhibition in Leeds, its use in Yorkshire shouldn’t be overlooked. On some of the grimy days of our winter so far, Julia’s sculptures have glowed through the drizzle from the huge windows of Gallery Munro House, taking the Leeds streetscape back to the days when enormous neon structures like the sign for Powolny’s Restaurant lit up Bond Street.
Leeds city centre in the 1950s was a place that had to be closed down and abandoned some afternoons due to the severity of the smog from surrounding factories – the air was simply too thick with dirt to safely breathe – and the obscure neon glow of a restaurant sign dimmed by industrial murk is as valid an image of neon’s heyday as the clear, clean air of a desert drive-in movie. Those signs, mounted on poles under endless American skies, will be the ones that make it into the advertising history books; but in Leeds we interpreted our advertisers’ neon messages through a cloud of grit.
Julia’s neon is closer in spirit to the Leeds neon than the American west’s; rather than sharp shapes delivering a clear message – Drink Coca-Cola, Drink Pepsi – her sculptures have indistinct forms, curving back on themselves and conveying no easily discernable messages. Some of the tubes are forced through actual hardback books, but rather than a comment on the blur of advertising, Julia’s dyslexia is the key here; the bright neon lights illuminate the words on the pages but destroy their meaning at the same time, leaving great burning holes in the centre of the text. ‘Shining a light’ is supposed to be a metaphor for making something understood, but sometimes the brighter something is the harder it is to read – you have to shield your eyes and look around the edges. The neon acts on the books the way the smog in Leeds used to act on the neon; you have to peer through a smog of light to read the signs hidden behind, the way someone with dyslexia reads a text through a film of unfixed symbols.
The neon here isn’t acting like the welcoming signal of the American west; rather than symbolise progress and expansion across the plains, neon here is about being trapped: gas trapped in a glass tube; meanings trapped behind clouds of smog, light, or dyslexia; and neon signs trapped inside a gallery, when once they would have been mounted on the roof, like the newly relit sign atop The Tetley.
The Tetley’s sign, in fact, reflects Julia’s exhibition as well as anything in the city. Boar Lane’s neon signs have given way to Trinity’s LEDs, but the return of the red beacon above the home of Tetley’s beer is a nod to the era when neon signs fought the smog above the streets of Leeds. That sign’s meaning has become, like Julia’s sculptures, a tangle – an old sign for the home of a departed company, it still tells the truth – it is on the roof of The Home of Tetley’s Established 1822 – but the building below is now The Tetley, established 2013, while the home of Tetley’s is now Copenhagen or Wolverhampton, depending on your definition; the beer, though, is back in the Tetley’s bar. The meaning of the word “Tetley’s” has become tangled, while the shape of the sign has stayed the same, easier to see now than it was in the smog-skied days of Tetley’s golden era, but standing now not just for a brewery HQ but for a brewery’s history, an art gallery’s future, and everything in between.
Julia Bickerstaff’s exhibition doesn’t just burn light for the pleasure (and it is a pleasure) of a candy coloured glow; it makes the point that while light helps you to see, it doesn’t always help you to understand. Skies, like gasses, aren’t always clear; fill them with smoke or electrons and they’ll darken or glow. Either way, you’ll have to find your own way.
Neon: Burning Light is at Gallery Munro House until 24th December.