SAN DIEGO -- "The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths." So wrote Bruce Nauman in a colorful neon spiral in 1967. Pretty wry, to make such a romantic sentiment gleam like a beer ad. But Nauman's self-reflexive, subversive definition of his own enterprise makes perfect sense in the shape of a spiral -- dynamic, continuous and conspicuously lacking closure.
Punster, sage, tease, oracle -- Nauman has long made some of the most revealing work around, both mystic and mundane. The two turn out to be surprisingly congruent.
Although he has worked in a wide variety of media, his neon pieces are among his most pithy. In 2006, the Milwaukee Art Museum organized an abbreviated traveling survey of the New Mexico-based artist's work in light-related media from the 1960s through the '80s, mostly neon, but also fluorescent-light installations. Now "Elusive Signs: Bruce Nauman Works With Light" is making the final stop of its tour at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, which has augmented Milwaukee curator Joseph D. Ketner II's selections with a few of its own. The show can be taken in quickly, but the deliciously prickly experience lingers long in the mind.
A thing for light
Nauman's romance with light dates back to his years as a graduate student at UC Davis. For part of his thesis exhibition, in 1965, he performed a piece he called "Manipulating a Fluorescent Tube." Excerpts from a videotaped restaging of the piece show Nauman sitting on the floor with his legs splayed, the bulb protruding from between them.
As with so much of Nauman's art, the comical aspect of the piece strikes you first, followed by the more ponderous repercussions. As in the neon spiral, those often concern art's purpose. Leaning over the tube in a series of slow, calisthenic-like stretches, Nauman defines art -- ironically, but maybe not -- as a sober, masturbatory, narcissistic practice.
Many of the figurative neon works that came after have sexual overtones as well. Animated, vibrantly colored drawings, they flicker on and off to denote sequential motion, underlying connections, unintended consequences. In "Five Marching Men" (1985), the profiles in red, green, mauve, blue and peach remain still, although as one arm and one leg of each figure rise to suggest lockstep movement, so too does each man's radiant, erect penis. Nauman is having fun, and so are we. But through the lightest, most playful of means, he reveals a not-so-mystic truth about the testosterone rush of communal male might.
His language-based works in neon are at least as rich. Some spell out simple anagrams. The twinned phrases "None Sing Neon Sign" (1970) appear casually handwritten, stacked one atop the other. "Raw War" (1970) consists of just the three capital letters in red, illuminated in reverse and then in their entirety to spell two words with a dark kinship.
Other word pieces are more complicated and layered, choreographed dances of moral opposites, blinking warnings of racial prejudice. The most elaborate, "One Hundred Live and Die" (1984), marries declarative ease and an uncompromising toughness. Mounted on a black, free-standing wall are 100 phrases in vivid colored block letters, arrayed in four neat columns. The words in one column -- "Eat and Live," "Fear and Live," "Pay and Live" and so on -- are echoed in the next ("Eat and Die," "Fear and Die," "Pay and Die"). Nauman's inventory of options sticks for the most part with verbs (sing, suck, scream, try, lie, kiss) but evolves into colors as well ("Yellow and Live"). Some of his choices form rhyming couplets (tell/smell) or paired opposites (come/go, rise/fall). They blink on singly and in patterns, and ultimately all are illuminated.
The piece couldn't be more clearly presented, but its meaning is neither fixed nor stable, so it has that spiral-like elusiveness. A verbal/visual chant, a recitation, a rant, it is dense with contradiction -- a poem of existence constantly rewriting itself.
Nauman's adoption of an advertising medium to express conditions other than promise and certainty is savvy, and its subversive power threads through all the neon work. John Baldessari's early text paintings, executed by a commercial sign painter, are comparable in their wit and the way they undermine and redefine the artist's role.
Drama of color
Nauman's work in neon plays its reassuring vibrancy against the unease generated by its content. The two installations in the show are similarly seductive and destabilizing. "Green Light Corridor," originally shown here in 1971, presents a narrow, free-standing hallway bathed in a lime glow. The passageway is passable, but not comfortably.
"Helman Gallery Parallelogram" (1971) is also challenging to enter. Access is through a doorway set near the tight wedge formed by exterior walls enclosing the parallelogram space. A matching doorway is located at the opposite corner of the room. The central space is bare except for fluorescent lights that tint it green.
The drama begins when you squeeze out of the room into one of the wedges, which suddenly appear soaked in violet. After absorbing the green light, when the eye moves to a neutral area it produces a retinal afterimage in the complementary color of violet. The illusion fades after a short while, leaving the mind to wonder what happened, what's real, and to want the sensation back.
The piece works like an optical fun house, a twisted Turrell. You can draw out the phenomenal performance only if you change positions. The piece can't be perceived from a single spot or in a single way. Nauman's work in light-based media is like that. It induces a fluid curiosity through its own refusal to be only one thing or another -- tough or absurd, slight or profound, silly or sobering, comic or tragic.