Keith Sonnier, Cross Station, circa 1987, aluminum,
neon tubes, wire, edition of 4, 50 x 48 x 8 inches.
Permanent Collection 2004.111. Gift of the Estate of Edna Sloan Beron
Renowned light artist Keith Sonnier (1941, Mamou, Louisiana) - whose work can be seen at the Boca Raton Museum of Art - has roots in the American Minimalism movement, which took place in the 1960s. His peers are artists like Bruce Nauman, Donald Judd, Richard Serra, Eva Hesse and Robert Morris - artists who rejected pictorial illusionism and put their trust in real space.
Additionally, these artists redefined sculpture through the use of unusual materials (fabric, latex, industrial elements and light) in the 1960s-70s. One minimalist element of Sonnier's work is its relation to the space in which it is exhibited rather than a fictional space found within the confines of a frame.
Instead of pointing to itself, as narrative pictures do, it points outwards, to its surrounding elements. When one looks at a piece of light art, one also looks at wall space, architecture and even the other people that inhabit the gallery space around them. Elements of this phenomenon can be seen in other light artists' work - Dan Flavin and James Turrell, for example.
The defining element of Sonnier's style is his use of neon light. The sharp linear quality of neon as it emits from its tube casing allows Sonnier to essentially "draw" on an architectural element, in addition to creating a diffuse wash of color as it falls on differing planes. The wall, generally considered a structural support, is now a part of his canvas.
Currently, Sonnier resides in New York City, where he continues to create light art sculptures. Some of his recent projects include the Tunnel of Tears which was featured at the reopening of P.S.1 in Long Island in 1997, and gallery shows at the Joseloff Gallery at the University of Hartford, CT, Galerie JGM in Paris, and PaceWildenstein, New York.
For Tunnel of Tears, Sonnier, bathed the interior of a chimney at P.S. 1 in blue and pink light. Sonnier integrated the existing architecture so that when looking at the piece, one can get a whole new feel for an interior that normally would have gone unnoticed.
Alternatively, the work shown at JGM Galerie departs from his standard installation method. USA: War of the Worlds (2004) has a more confined feel to it, with American flags boxing in the color emitting from tubes of light at the center of the piece. Rather than the light painting a wall, the flags create a space with marked borders, making it difficult for the light to emanate beyond.
This motif is repeated with Baghdad Relic (2004), also at JGM, wherein the mounted sea shells (listed as found objects) create a partition between light and wall, effectively absorbing a majority of the color. Once you are familiar with the trajectory of Sonnier's work, this deviation in style becomes all the more poignant.
Almost all of Sonnier's works ask us to see light and color as a medium, blurring our understanding of object and environment.