Noble Gas
    Neon works shine at the Butler Institute

         In the wake of its economic and political plagues, Youngstown somehow
    continues to enjoy a degree of cultural health. The Butler Institute of American
    Art, founded in 1919, has actually prospered under the visionary leadership of
    Executive Director Louis Zona during the past three decades, renovating older
    galleries and in 2000 opening the new ultra-modern Beecher Center for Arts and
         The Center’s Flad Gallery showcases digital and electronic media, this month
    exhibiting works by Jeffry Chiplis made out of recycled neon advertisements and
    decorative strips – “found neon,” as the Cleveland-based artist terms his chosen
    materials.  Neon has been used by a number of mold-breaking modernists, while
    rustbelt art is often rich in objets trouvés. But taking vintage shards of
    commercial technology and plugging them into a different end of the culture,
    playing with a bit of our neglected poetry, is a neat mix of originality and what the
    periodic table lists as one of the six “noble” gases.
         Chiplis is a man with an eye for beauty in unlikely places -- he’s known also
    as a world-class collector of carrot memorabilia, for example. But however you
    feel about carrots, slinky neon tubing is easy enough to love, with a night time
    beauty that evokes both the glamour of cities and the glimmering madness of
    chemistry. Sometimes Chiplis has liberated neon or argon-filled sections of glass
    tubing from abandoned gas stations or billboards, but he insists that where it
    comes from doesn’t matter; he plucks it from the rusting city and, after some
    minor fiddling, plunks it back down, re-contextualized along the byways of his own
    imagination. At the Flad Gallery his “Egyptian Fantasy” rebuilds the remains of
    several Camel cigarette advertisements, creating a cartouche-ish tableau: Small
    blue camels trek in from the right; above them, wavy lines flow and a pyramidal
    yellow mirage floats near a sun-like coil -- a god ambling past on neon legs. Or
    there’s “Bonfire,” where flame-like red and yellow shapes rise from a fiery tangle
    of phosphorous-coated glass, surrounded by real logs arranged as makeshift
    stools. The tone of Chiplis’s re-contextualizations blinks between canny neo-
    Dadaist punning and more contemporary, deep-pile abstraction.
         Several years ago noted art critic and scholar Thomas McEvilley became
    aware of Chiplis’s sculpture/installation work and penned a center spread for an
    issue of Art in America. Shows in prestigious New York venues ensued, but the
    artist, while pleased, remains undistracted by his fame. New works like “A Dull
    Swim,” so-called because of slight damage to the final “t” in a found-neon
    phrase, further juxtaposed with a man’s face, a hand, a zero, and a plus sign --
    are as crisply ambiguous as ever. Chiplis continues to place image-laden
    materials at a new angle to the eye, reinventing their corner of space and time.

    Through May 9, 2010
    Jeffry Chiplis / Neon Works in the 21st Century
    The Butler Institute of American Art
    524 Wick Ave.
    Youngstown, OH
Bonfire, Jeff Chiplis
douglas max utter