The Neon News

"DEADLY NEON": A lethal dose of art criticism

By Joe Augusta

Editors' note: Joe Augusta teaches an art-oriented glassbending class at UCLA, and was one of the last graduates of the Egani neon school in New York. In a recent phone call we discussed teaching design vs. actual bending, and Joe was emphatic about the problems students have had getting past stereotypes and trite images, especially in the classes he formerly taught where students only designed and didn't bend glass. The accompanying list is part of a handout he gives to students on the first day of class. Judging by the number of palm trees, flamingos and cactuses out there, we should have a nice pile of flak mail to pass on to him.


Here's my verboten list from my class at UCLA. The usual response from the students is a blank stare, then "Well, what's left?"

That's where the teaching begins: getting the students to let go of their preconceptions regarding neon, their bag of clichés they bring to the class.

I won't let them make it (whatever it is) bigger, a different color, a slight variation, etc..; they have to think for themselves and come up with something on their own.

I mean, if at the core of your uniqueness as a human being is a cactus, get out of my class!

Teaching neon as a design class alone is even worse.

First off, students should take historical classics in design (they don't), then they should learn design with simple items they're familiar with: they should learn how to use a pencil.

They should study the history of neon signs and sculpture; they should study art, and be relatively comfortable making art; they should have made art in any medium at some time within the last ten years.

They should have a slightly above-average IQ, they should physically look good and know how to present( themselves in public, they should not be in class because of their psychiatrist's request that they do something with their hands.

They should not be engineers, lawyers, dentists (although dentists have to work with their hands so you can let them in), but math, English, sociology, psychology, in fact all social science instructors, no, they should have the hands of Matisse, the savvy of Andy Warhol, and the looks of Kim Basinger, then they could learn something from you.

And you might learn from them. That's when teaching is the best: when students and teacher are learning. And that's the truth.

That reminds me of the first time I was in L.A. in the summer of '86.I went to an art school downtown that shall go unnamed, and thought I had died and gone to Neon Hell!

There was a show of neon art going on that looked like a slightly fey version of all the L.A. neon artists' work. It was slightly off, like being in Canada without knowing it.

There was a piece on the wall that looked like Lili Lakich 's work: the diamond plate, the brushed aluminum, the "crackle tube," the big, rather dumb gesture of the piece in its entirety, yet it was even more dull than Lili's work.

There was a floor piece that had many geometric tubes, flashing on and off in some sort of sequence in some kind of architectural plastic box. It was a clone of Eric Zimmerman's work! Which to me has always been full of sound and fury but unfortunately signifying nothing...

And another piece had a simple curve repeated over and over in different colors and in sequence so there appeared to be movement through space! Michael Hayden? No. Even though he's had phenomenal success in work after work proving that if you repeat a trite idea enough times it begins to acquire a kind of meaning: Minimalism and Buddhism and Mrs. Sanguedolce prove this out. (Mrs. Sanguedolce? Italian: sweetblood.) She was my third grade teacher who made me write on the blackboard 100 times: "I will not spit on girls." Well, I don't do it anymore.)

There was a small piece on a pedestal that looked like a Larry Albright, but wasn't as clean as his work; sort of a Larry Halfbright.

And so on. Piece after piece wrong. Finally I had to ask the receptionist what I was looking at. She replied: "This is the group show for the neon design class!"

What torture to put these kids through, I thought; and just to copy marginal work at best.

So beware. You almost can't teach neon; the medium is too pretty and people like it for wrong reasons.

It's like trying to give a lecture when you have a gorgeous blonde in the first row with a short skirt who keeps crossing and uncrossing her legs!

To learn neon you have to learn to ignore her! And still continue to function!

Palm trees, rainbows, lips, cost hangers, flowers, bicycles, shoes, hats, shirts, pipes and cigars, cigarettes, cameras.

Parrots, flamingos, all birds, fish, crabs, lobsters, cows and horses.

Unicorns, rabbits, dragons, camels, whales, frogs, sharks and mice; all cats and dogs.

Coffee cups, cocktail glasses, eyeglasses, teeth, ears, hearts.

Wine bottles, pizza, spaghetti, bread, hot dogs, hamburgers, steaming chicken.

Circles, triangles, squares, any geometric shape complete or incomplete.

Stars, shooting stars, moons, planets and bubbles, sun and clouds, waves, and lightning.

Planes, trains, cars and boats.

Guitars, electric bass, acoustic bass, trumpets, saxophones, and pianos.

Chairs, beds, tables, desks and Light bulbs

Barns, skyscrapers, cityscapes, houses and Greek columns.

Remember. what you see, think and feel can be expressed in neon. But the medium has pitfalls and traps that can lead to a terminal case of banality. Unfortunately, we carry these things about in our heads, and they will stop us from finding our own voice! Therefore, they are to be avoided at all cost, and will be prohibited from this class.

Copyright 1990 THE NEON NEWS
Published by Ted Persig & Val CrawfordEmail:

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