Featured Artist: Bruce Nauman

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Bruce Nauman is a sculpture and text artist who incorporates the elements of light and color into his art. The vibrant, whimsical and sometimes jarring use of neon lights allows the Nauman to blur the lines between serious art and decoration. Nothing is more crass than a neon sign, but Nauman exploits this stereotype to achieve his purpose:

Beginning in the mid-1960s, Nauman exploited the ubiquity of neon signage to produce “art that would kind of disappear, an art that was supposed to not quite look like art.” He created luminous wordplays that alluded to tensions both individual and social, but which challenged viewers to find their own resonance. In Malice(1980), the foreboding noun is illuminated in red neon tubes, obscured behind its inverted spelling in green. The jumbled letters may suggest malice that has gone unnoticed, or imperviousness to violent acts”. With these words, Gagosian Paris introduces us one of the most prominent artists of the 20th century in the event of his exhibition of key works. Complementing the Bruce Nauman exhibition at the Fondation Cartier pour l’art Contemporain, the artist’s first major solo exhibition in France in more than 15 years, Gagosian’s Paris exhibition showcases the singularity of Nauman’s compelling visual language.

(Typeface, Bruce Nauman’s Enigmatic Text Art Is Having Paris Thrilled All Over Again). Although Nauman has a enormous body of work, the following examples represent Nauman’s mastery of text as the central element of artistic expression.

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(Bruce Nauman, Eat Death). First, the use of neon suggests the power of words to light of our minds. When we read text with our eyes, the electrical signals from our eye literally light up areas of our brain. Undoubtedly, when we read primal words like “eat” and “death,” our visual cortex lights up with activity. There is a reason Las Vegas and saloons use neon lighting–it captures our attention at a primal level and seems to transmit the message deep into our consciousness. The layering of the words “eat” and “death” communicates so much about our fate, our fears, and our essential nature as animals. First, the word “death” contains the word “eat,” but Nauman elected to use separate, but layered neon signs, to portray these words. The reader considers one of the fundamental acts of living–eating–while at the same time contemplating the concept of death. Death is made more real by being in close association with “eat.” Nauman reminds us that our ultimate fate is never far away and lies right behind the most basic of human acts. He also suggests a connection between “eat” and “death.” When we “eat” to continue living, we have caused the death of the animal or plant that sustains us. In two word (or arguable one word than contains both), Nauman provokes contemplation about the human condition. This is a powerful use of text as an artistic element.

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(Bruce Nauman, Run from Fear Fun from Rear, 1972). Nauman’s clever wordplay in this piece would be provocative in any medium, but its presentation in neon emphasizes the reversal of the two phrases. Among possible interpretations, Nauman asks us to consider the perspective of the pursued and the pursuer (or the predator and prey). The yellow “Run from Fear” is placed above the pink “Fun from Rear.” Yellow is a warming color and suggests the emotional experience of someone running from fear. In contrast, pink is a playful color emphasizing that being the predator or pursuer chasing down the prey is a fun and playful endeavor. We are asked to consider that every relationship has two perspectives and the subjective experience from these two perspectives can be radically different. Nauman’s use of light as his medium to present text charges his work with an emotional quality that would not exist in another medium–such as the printed word on paper.

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(Bruce Nauman, One Hundred Live and Die, 1984). In this complex and ambitious piece, Nauman pairs various words (both nouns and verbs) with the words “die” and “live.” Nauman’s work pulls us into deep questions about the meaning of life and the ever present conflict between life and death. When paired with “live,” a work like “touch” can be tender and soft. The phrase “Touch and Live” reminds us that touch and human connection is essential to happy living. Yet, when I read “Touch and Die,” I picture the ever present dangers of life. “Touch and die” might be an admonition from a dangerous person to stay away or a warning about a hidden danger. In his 50 pairing, Nauman forces us to see the ambiguity and relativity of language,. Incredibly nuanced emotions can arise by pairing the same word with “live” or “die.” When I read “Pay and Die,” I think of a person who spent his whole life paying into the system only to face a lonely and meaningless death. In contrast, when I read “Pay and Live,” I think about both the mundane need to pay for what we require in daily life or the more dramatic demand of a kidnapper.

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(Bruce Nauman, The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths, 1967). In this piece, Nauman twists the phrase “The true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths” into a flashing spiral of light. I am left wondering whether Nauman intends his statement to be taken seriously. If printed in a written essay, the statement “the true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths” would require an argument and evidence to establish its validity. Presented visually, Nauman is asking us to think about the function of art. Can art ever really reveal mystic truths? Would neon text art be the place we go for mystic truths? On one hand, making this claim in flashing neon seems to satirize the seriousness of art. Using a crass technique of advertising–flashing neon–Naumann communicates a bold claim. From one perspective, Naumann seems to be poking fun at this idea. Indeed, the twisting of the message into a spiral–which evokes the Jungian mandala–is humorous. The spiral is associated with mysticism in many religions, especially Eastern religions. However, like much of his work, this piece is also paradoxical. A short phrase in a flashing neon mandala may be precisely what the viewer needs to be pointed to the mystical. Nauman may actually be claiming that flashing neon words are a more direct and effective method to point to mystical truths than other artistic mediums. Perhaps Nauman has discovered a mystical pill for the mind. Neon words do seem to have a unique ability to penetrate the mind. When this piece is considered along side the works above, Nauman’s work can be reframed as zen like koans designed to probe and prod the mind into seeing the mystical dichotomy of life. For example, when viewing “Eat Death,” I found my mind quieted and being pointed to a deeper truth about the nature of life where we are always straddling on the line between life and death.