Strokes of Neon: Aspen Art Museum showcases Mary Weatherford’s ‘Neon Paintings’
What: Mary Weatherford, “Neon Paintings”
Where: Aspen Art Museum
When: Through May 2
How much: Free
More info: Due to public health restrictions, the museum is operating at a reduced visitor capacity. Reserve a visiting time at aspenartmuseum.org.
With limited capacity in the Aspen Art Museum due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, and no splashy art opening, no artist talk, no big event crowds, visitors to the Aspen Art Museum have been able to spend intimate time with Mary Weatherford’s “Neon Paintings,” to get a little lost in or overwhelmed by these immersive works.
The exhibition includes Weatherford’s pivotal and breakout paintings, made since 2012, of dramatic abstract painted canvases affixed with glowing neon rods that both illuminate the painting and serve themselves as stand-out linear brushstrokes.
She made first such pieces in Bakersfield, inspired by the neon signage around the central California city. She first showed them there at the Todd Madigan Gallery at California State University at Bakersfield, where she was teaching.
When she first turned on the neon light on her original neon painting, with help from her students, Weatherford recalled in a December 2019 on the “Conversations About Art” podcast with former Aspen Art Museum director Heidi Zuckerman, she was simply relieved that the experiment didn’t fail.
“I was even surprised, I was shocked, because the woman at the neon shop in Bakersfield said, ‘So did that make the colors in the painting all muddy?’ I said, ‘No, I don’t know, I haven’t turned it on.’ She said, ‘Maybe it’s going to make it look muddy.’”
The stakes were high for Weatherford, who feared the lighting shopkeeper might be right.
“I was super gung ho about this idea. … I’d lie in bed and get these stomachaches like, ‘This is a terrible idea!’” she recalled, adding with a laugh: “And then I’d be relieved by the fact that it would be in Bakersfield and no one would see it.”
Of course, it did work and people did see it. Her “Neon Paintings” became Weatherford’s signature, though she had been a working artist since the 1980s, and became something of an art-collecting phenomenon with exhibitions in major galleries and museums.
When the David Kordansky Gallery, of Los Angeles, exhibited new Weatherford neon paintings at the Frieze Art Fair in 2015, T Magazine reported they “flew off their temporary walls within the first half-hour of (Oct. 15’s) V.I.P. preview.”
Weatherford was announced as the recipient of the 2020 Aspen Award for Art a year ago. The award was to include the customary August artist’s talk at the museum and honors at the annual ArtCrush gala, followed by a major solo exhibition. The pandemic scrapped the gatherings, of course, and any award ceremony. But the art show went on. It opened in December and will run through early May.
The paintings are not purely abstract and do often carry secret narratives. Weatherford has said many were inspired by personal experiences and particular landscapes. They are precise moments in time, captured in abstract style but with as specific a subject as a photograph might capture. Weatherford has specified some of them. Works included in the Aspen show include “Tempest,” from 2015, depicting a storm on the Pacific — a subject she has returned to often throughout her career — and “Chinatown,” with its moody nocturnal blues and warm oranges, depicting Manhattan’s Chinatown at night. “Blue Cut Fire,” with its violent movements of reds behind blue-green neon tubing, depicts the 2016 wildfire that tore through the San Gabriel Mountains.
Weatherford’s practice for these pieces carries on the abstract expressionist tradition of painting on the floor using a physically demanding process. She works barefoot, she said in the podcast, occasionally leaving a trace of stray footprint on her canvas and always leaving an undeniable residue of human exertion on the work.
‘The painting becomes the portal to all the other next paintings,” she said of her process. “Because I paint on the floor, I paint flat. And so when I see it stretched on the wall, it’s a completely different painting.”
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