Thursday, 25 January 2001

Lisa Neighbour: Illuminations

Then, turning round his great eye, he discerned the strangers, and growled out to them,  demanding who they were, and where from. Ulysses replied most humbly, stating that they  were Greeks, from the great expedition that had lately won so much glory in the conquest of Troy; that they were now on their way home, and finished by imploring his hospitality  in the name of the gods. Polyphemus deigned no answer, but reaching out his hand seized  two of the Greeks, whom he hurled against the side of the cave, and dashed out their  brains. He proceeded to devour them with great relish, and having made a hearty meal,  stretched himself out on the floor to sleep.1

In his 1993 year-end review of Toronto visual art, writer and artist Oliver Girling gave pride of place to Lisa Neighbour's exhibition "In the Dark," calling it "dazzling." Girling, however, didn't merely praise the work, but praised it in contrast to what he perceived to be a dominant trend in art at that time - art that was, in his words, "cynical, smarty-pants . . . self-referential."2 And so it was, in those years of the early 1990s: pessimism did at times give way to cynicism. The Canadian art world was experiencing a malaise; indeed all of Canada was in the dumps by the end of 1993. The economy was in terrible shape and struggling to recover from the recession of 1990. The effects of free trade with the United States and the rapid development of a global marketplace were traumatizing and painful. Canadian cultural identity, founded in the postwar period on universal health care, state-owned industries and government support for education and culture, was coming apart at the seams as both provincial and federal governments were facing debt crises. Ontario's social democratic NDP government was in a battle with its traditional supporters, the public service unions, to renegotiate contracts in exchange for job security - the so-called Social Contract. Programme spending in areas of health, education and culture was being frozen or cut back at all levels of government. 

By 1990, it was estimated that nine million people were infected with HIV worldwide. The effects of global warming and ozone depletion threatened an ecological disaster of unimaginable proportions. In 1993, the largest and longest-sustained hole in the ozone layer was recorded - 25 million square kilometres - larger than the European continent.3 The psychic relief from the end of the cold war, the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the reduced threat of nuclear war were tempered by the realization that international market values now reigned supreme and that there was no foreseeable alternative to global capitalism. 

Visual art sustained particularly intense attacks in the early '90s. In the United States, controversy over the work of Andres Serrano and Robert Mapplethorpe, and in Canada, the National Gallery's acquisition of Barnett Newman's Voice of Fire and Mark Rothko's No. 16, focused debate on government support for the arts. In New York, the 1993 Whitney Biennial, which received scathing reviews in the mainstream press, seemed to define the chasm that had opened up between the art world and an uncomprehending and increasingly recalcitrant public.4 

In Toronto, the confusion came to a head when artist Eli Langer was prosecuted for the alleged crime of producing child pornography, stemming from his exhibition of paintings and drawings at the artist-run gallery Mercer Union. Buffeted by recession and the collapse of the commercial art market and stung by the erosion of public support for the arts, the art community was on the defensive. Faced with the dystopic prospect of a rampant killer disease and a global ecological meltdown, the humanistic belief that underpinned the arts community - that an enlightened society could develop rationally, humanely and free of exploitation - was foundering on a pervasive sense of pessimism and gloom. Los Angeles curator and critic Ralph Rugoff coined the term Pathetic Art for work by emerging artists that reflected feelings of failure, powerlessness and inadequacy.5 In an article in the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik identified the emergence of a new "Morbid Manner," wherein he perceived the building of "memorials-in-advance to an apocalypse whose causes are ill-defined but whose inevitability is grimly certain."6 Death and despair, it seems, had become the metaphors for the life we were living in the early 1990s. 

Queen Street West in the 1980s was an artists' community not unlike the Lower East Side community of artists in New York during the same period, where young, middle-class art-school graduates lived in a socially distressed, working-class, ethnic ghetto. Such neighbourhoods were primarily attractive for their cheap flats or rough commercial/industrial spaces - ideal for artists who wanted a situation in which to live and work. 

In 1981, Lisa Neighbour and her partner Carlo Cesta moved into an old, six-story industrial building at 620 Richmond Street West in Toronto. "Six-Twenty Richmond," as it was known, was a short block from the busy corner of Queen and Bathurst Streets. It was a mixed industrial, commercial, residential neighbourhood with eastern European and Portuguese enclaves. But as Toronto recovered from the recession of the early 1980s, Queen Street West started to become trendy. 620 Richmond was renovated, rents were increased, and Lisa Neighbour and Carlo Cesta were forced to move further west into the community of Parkdale. 

After graduating from the Ontario College of Art in 1981, Neighbour and a few school friends had established a print shop in the basement of her mother's house in mid-town Toronto. For the next four years she worked as a waitress in the evenings and travelled uptown to make prints during the day. She started to show her work at the Angel Art Gallery on Avenue Road, owned by Nan Shuttleworth. But by the mid 1980s Neighbour was beginning to experience a crisis of motivation. A period of living in New York exposed her to frontline issues in contemporary art and caused her to lose faith in the body of work she had been developing since graduating from art school. The positive feedback that she had received from her exhibitions at the Angel Gallery no longer seemed sufficient cause to make art. Her frustration and unhappiness at this creative block was reflected in work that was increasingly dark and angry. A couple of years after moving from 620 Richmond to Parkdale, she decided that, "What I needed to do was something just for me and not for anybody else."7 Neighbour returned to an experience that she had in her former neighbourhood for inspiration. 

"I discovered it almost by accident. I was watching a construction crew setting up the lights  on the church at Adelaide and Bathurst Streets for the Portuguese festival. It was beautiful  to see it happening. They would link up each piece together with the wires, up there  swinging from these dangerous looking scaffolds. At some point somebody would throw  the big switch and it would go on."8

St. Mary's Catholic Church at the corner of Adelaide and Bathurst was elaborately decorated every year for the festival of Senhor Santo Cristo dos Milagre, as was St. Patrick's Catholic Church at Dundas and Grace for the festival of Senhor da Pedra. The decorations consisted of images painted on plywood and laced with strings of coloured lights, each connected to the next with flowers and garlands. The festivals at St. Mary's and St. Patrick's were a religious Gesamtkunswerk uniting folk art, religion and community. 

Part of the attraction the church decorations held for Neighbour came from her interest in "outsider" art. In Canada, the critique of social power that began in the 1960s continued to influence the changing cultural landscape. Advocates of feminism, multi-culturalism, aboriginal rights and gay rights continued to question the existing structures of authority and privilege. In the visual arts, the imposing edifice of Clement Greenberg's post-war modernism started to come undone as a result of this critique, and many artists began to investigate domestic, folk and naive art forms as alternative modes of expression and as symbols of cultural resistance.9 

And folk art just seemed fresher, less affected and free of that tiresome academic cant. Neighbour's partner Carlo Cesta had exhibited his work at Claude Arsenault's Home Again Gallery in 1981 and 1983, a gallery that specialized in folk art. Moreover, Neighbour had considerable experience with Mexican folk art, having been to Mexico with her family frequently over the years. Mexican folk religion, its festival decoration and its votive shrines, often made with whatever material was available, became a significant influence not only on the body of work she was now developing, but also as part of a personal, pantheistic religious outlook: 

"My attitude towards religious ideas is definitely influenced by going to Mexico. . . For  each big festival, a different shrine is made. People go from home to home, visiting each  other's shrine, placing objects on them, singing in front of them. There is a web of  connections between the shrines in a neighbourhood."10

Inspired by these painted plywood and electric-light constructions, Neighbour made a couple of early versions of her own. These include Bouquet of Flowers (1987) and Gems andUntitled (both 1988). But it was the crown of thorns image circling the rose window at St. Patrick's Church that was to significantly influence the artist. Neighbour began to make lithographs featuring the crown of thorns. The braided circular image eventually mutated into wreaths, in what she calls a "degraded crown of thorns configuration." Trance Wreath (1988) was a turning point: 

"It wasn't figurative, it didn't have any concrete references, it did have the braided crown of  thorns configuration, but there were no thorns on it - it was just this huge, oval shaped  braid with all these lights on it. And when I finally fired the thing up - it had about a  hundred lights on it - they were each blinking on and off in random sequences. I hung the  thing up on the wall and thought, well now I'm finally getting somewhere."11 

The crown of thorns was the basic form behind a series of images that included various types of crowns, floral wreaths and abstract curvilinear weaves. It is possible to see in the crown of thorns a formal relationship with other circular curving forms like the Mobius strip (Max Bill, M.C. Escher) or the ourabourous, the snake eating its tail as an ancient symbol of all-consuming time. The adaptations of the crown of thorns made by Neighbour followed the anagogical tradition of the icon, turning the symbol of torture into a mystical symbol of victory (the wreath) and imperial authority (the crown) and an object of meditation (mandala). 

While she would work on a crown image in print, Neighbour would create a corresponding light work. During an artist's residency at the Toronto, artist-run print shop Open Studio in 1989 she created the large Black Wreath, a drypoint engraving done with power tools on a large sheet of plastic. Black Wreath was followed by Festival Wreath (1990), a painted plywood and electric-light construction. Similarly, the linoleum-cut Crown of the Kingdom of Bavaria, of 1989, was followed by its painted plywood cognate Crown, of 1991. 

Neighbour was initially reluctant to show the light sculpture. "It was sort of in its formative stages and I was fooling around a bit and I wasn't showing it to anybody. It was a completely personal thing for me that was never intended to see the light of day."12 It was as though she had trapped the genie in a bottle and feared taking the lid off. But she did venture to show Festival Wreath together with Black Wreath at her Open Studio residency exhibition.13 The contrast must have been striking. Exhibiting the two pieces together as much as said, "Here is the dark and angry work that I do in my day job as a printmaker, and here is the bright and colourful work I do at home for fun." 

The artist's split personality was on full display in her exhibition "The Other Mind," 1991, at the Red Head Gallery in Toronto. One side of the gallery featured her print work and on the other side were installed the light works. "The Other Mind" was clearly divided into Lisa Neighbour's day job and her night job, her past and her future. Festival Wreath,Trance WreathCrown and Lotus were each exhibited opposite their corresponding prints. Searching for a way to bring it all together, Neighbour distanced herself from the objects and speculated on more esoteric motivations. "Each idea is part of a map or sign post, directing me to a state of mind where I can rest and create. My work is tangible evidence and a record of this search."14 

Nevertheless, the genie had been let out of the bottle. Neighbour was showing a body of work that was personal and not part of any proscribed style or content. She was giving herself permission to deviate from the printmaking discipline in which she had been educated, and setting out on a new and uncharted course. A place had been found where she could "rest and create," and the fact that it didn't much look like anything else being exhibited at the time left her without the signposts of familiar art language. Although she received much support and encouragement to pursue the light-sculpture work, there was no one to contextualize or interpret it. She was on her own, and in that isolation, she was looking to other voices and other ways of thinking to make sense of it all. 

"I was looking for some way to connect them up . . . I was doing some research into how  other people were defining similar experiences . . . using the symbolism of light and  darkness to describe philosophical and religious concepts which are hard to describe. It is  interesting to see that a completely different culture was talking about things in a way that  I could really understand."15

In 1992, Neighbour collaborated with Carlo Cesta and the art collaborators Fastwürms for the Toronto Sculpture Garden installation Artes Moriendi. Three distinct sculptures created an installation that commented on death, ecology and the failures of modernism, by imaginatively recasting the sculpture garden as part of neighbouring St. James Cathedral's missing graveyard. Despite the group effort, Neighbour's work stood apart from the other two installations. While Cesta and Fastwürms played with the ironies of historical mausoleum and sepulchre architecture in the modernist style, Neighbour contributed a three-dimensional abstract swirl of light that continued her interest in the crown motif - a three-dimensional Trance Wreath. In the context of funerary monuments it became a sort of electrified mortal coil. Dai Skuse perceived the developing mystical metaphorical core to Neighbour's work: 

"Christian mysticism meets folk art futurism. Images of rose window cathedrals and spiral  galaxies, crowns of thorns and satellite gyroscopes collide in the simplicity and sincere  presentation of outsider art. . .  At the centre of Neighbour's sphere and the heart of the  memorial's equation, death is a metaphor of spirit and flight, a construction about the  yearning to escape from gravity and the burdens of the body, and to move freely within the  music of the heavenly spheres."16

The light sculpture may have been effective in the Red Head Gallery in 1991, but the work was spectacular outside at night. In the dark, the work became a set piece - an installation. And the parallels of exhibiting art in the dark - the spectacles of the movie theatre, the fun house and the night presentation of commercial signage on city streets - are all aspects of pop-cultural "futurism" and electrification that contexualize the work. The contrast of ambient darkness with the illuminated works brought mysticism into the discussion: the metaphorical opposition of clarity and obscurity, enlightenment and blindness - symbols of knowledge, ignorance, hope and fear. These symbols have long been part of western culture and in some very real way were part of our lives in the early 1990s. 

Neighbour's 1993 exhibition "In the Dark" consisted of thirteen small plywood paintings, each punctuated by a single light bulb or string of lights. The works were named for various methods of divination, a realm of esoteric knowledge in which Neighbour had recently become interested.17 Wired one to the next they formed a daisy chain of points of coloured light in an otherwise darkened space. The centralized, circular form that began with the influence of the rose window crown-of-thorns motif, that continued in the Trance Wreath and Lotus works of her first Red Head show, and that appeared most recently in the Artes Moriendi work, continued here in the form of floral, oval, circular and lozenge shapes. 

"In the Dark" was first and foremost an installation. The individual pieces were simplified in favour of a total ambient presence - most of the works in the show having only a single electrical bulb. In this installation, Neighbour was moving closer to her original experience of Portuguese festival decoration, where the individual iconic objects more than made up for their lack of technical virtuosity by their vast array. The illuminated church standing in dialogue and contrast to the commercial lights of the city streets was an aspect of the festival decoration's charm. Moreover it was about light as a religious metaphor. High above the ground, the festival images were like constellations in the night sky, symbols of a benign and benevolent God. 

"In the Dark," on the other hand, was in an enclosed gallery. The spectator was surrounded by low-level-light-emitting objects. On the two end walls, sequenced strings of light bulbs in the works Astromancy and Oculomancy created a flashing dialogue across the length of the gallery. Connected to them on the two long walls were eleven works that each featured a single bulb on a shaped coloured surface. The single centralized bulbs recalled mythical cyclopes - each icon of divination seemed to contain an omen within its dark contour shadow. "In the Dark" was a painterly exercise in the use of volumes of light and dark for aesthetic effect, similar perhaps to the paintings of New York artist Ross Bleckner, where the existence of points of light makes the spectator more aware of the surrounding darkness. Light in this context was illumination withheld, like existence in a tunnel - a space where light was indeed a long way off. 

"Up to this point, my work has documented a series of visual/emotional obsessions, not  quite understood but deeply felt. In this exhibition, I am aware of the darkness in which I  have been caught, but I am still in it, trying to analyze the experience. Instead of rushing  ahead of myself, I am taking a good look at this obscure and formative place, trying to see  its beauty before I move on."18

The cave of the cyclops, that Homeric symbol of irrational and arbitrary cruelty, was that "obscure and formative place" in which we were living in 1993.

By cunning and with luck, Ulysses and his surviving crew escaped from Polyphemus's cave. From the vantage of the year 2000, one can say that 1993's "inevitable and grimly certain apocalypse" was similarly averted, in the short term at least. Lisa Neighbour's art of darkness evolved from a meditation on the absence of light into apotropaic talismans and glowing objects of meditation and desire. "In the Dark" spawned Eye on the Square, Neighbour's 1994 installation of a monumental cyclopean eye on the Cambridge Public Library. And while Eye on the Square was directly derived from the earlier work Oculomancy, its installation outdoors high up on the side of the library building harkened back to the Portuguese festival decoration, the original inspiration for the light sculpture. Where Oculomancy was ominous, Eye on the Square was festive, one might even say celebratory. In the context of the library it became a combination humanistic icon and lucky amulet. The Eye also continued the mandala-like magnetism that all of the light sculpture seemed to possess. The centralized circular, or in this case, oval format, when combined with the electric lights, was transfixing and hypnotic. Neighbour seemed to acknowledge the primary, hypnotic effect of her work in her press release for the exhibition "Luminous" at the Red Head in 1995:

"The exhibition is based on states of mind such as meditation and dreaming, which lead to a  different perception of physical sensation and manifestation. During states of altered  consciousness, the physical body may feel weightless, huge, small, invisible, made of light  or made up of shadow. The environment appears as an intricate pattern, into which the  dreamer fits without a seam. The absence of boundaries between self and environment  may be frightening at times, but also a great relief from the restrictions of gender, age and location."

"Luminous" followed in the hypnotic lineage of Lotus and Trance Wreath, acquiring scale along the way from works like Artes Moriendi and Eye on the Square. All of these pieces begged the question: was it the aesthetic object itself as signifier that commanded such intense response, or was it rather the metaphor and the desire that this work signified? Was it our age old fascination with fire and its ersatz equivalent, the filament bulb, or was it the promise that it symbolized? The 1996 exhibition "Loot" at the Koffler Gallery in Toronto and the "Dalgas Underground" exhibition in Copenhagen of the same year proposed the literal option: the object of aesthetic desire was a kind of pirate's treasure - a dream of vast wealth or happiness or spiritual salvation - something at once available and yet unattainable. The group exhibition "Dalgas Underground" took place in series of second-world-era air-raid shelters.19 In one of these concrete bunkers, Neighbour installed a series of miners' lamps to light a path strewn with coins. At the end of the trail of coins was a small chest that was modelled and painted and adorned with fake gems and gold-painted coins. The pot of gold, the light at the end of the tunnel, was of course, fake. The installation was a literal illustration of Neighbour's effort to take ". . . a good look at this obscure and formative place, trying to see its beauty before I move on."

Lisa Neighbour did move on. While she has continued to make sculpture with electric lights, the subject of her work has begun to shift away from the metaphorical opposition of light and dark toward a deeper understanding of the materials with which she is working. Circuitry, conductivity and connectivity - fundamental principles of electricity - have become her new metaphors and working models. Emerging from her work with electrical wiring is an appreciation for the strange and mysterious power of electricity and the web of connections that make it accessible. Super Power, exhibited at the Red Head Gallery in 1997, is the first example of Neighbour's stripped-down work. Sixty varied table-top lamps - minus shades and outfitted with bulbs of various shapes, sizes and colours - were wired to a single source of power. Gone were the hand-painted and hand-shaped surfaces. Gone were the singular, centrally composed objects. Super Power was the skeleton - the wiring, the light fixtures - of all of the previous works.

Neighbour's most recent works, Why Knot? of 1998 and The BreezeRope Lights and Hurricane Andrew of 1999, have taken her further into the metaphorical associations of circuitry, connectivity and patterns of energy. While light is still a feature of all of these works, the electrical power is now being dispersed among a collection of small appliances. In Why Knot? and The Breeze she has rediscovered the much-maligned craft of macramé‚ to decoratively braid the wiring for a loose assembly of clock radios, fans and lamps. InRope Lights, Neighbour learned techniques of braiding and boondoggle to combine electrical cords into thick bundles. In Hurricane Andrew, she connected lights, fans and a heat lamp in what she calls an "electro-magnetic spiral," representing the elemental forces of waves of sound, air, light, and heat with familiar domestic machines.

Lisa Neighbour's light sculpture emerged from the very specific context of art and culture in Toronto in the second half of the 1980s and the first half of the 1990s. The cultural changes that took place during this time appear massive in retrospect. Quietly, Neighbour synthesized imagery, media, philosophical and religious texts and that intangible quality sometimes called Zeitgeist. Her body of work was the actualization of a personal, quasi-religious mythology that embraced the hopes and fears that she harboured within and that were reflected back by her community of family, friends and colleagues. It may have been a coincidence that in a time of suffering, the crown of thorns - the Christian Ecce Homosymbol - became a motif of ongoing influence in her work. The braided circular icon transformed itself variously over the decade into regal crowns, wreaths, mandalas, gyroscopes and eyes. On a deeper, conceptual level the motif persisted into the circuitry itself and in the braided and macram‚d electrical cords, and finally in the electromagnetic spiral ofHurricane Andrew. The braided spiral is a literal description of interconnection and continuity, metaphors of personal relationships and the life cycle that were important to believe in during a time of darkness. And during that time of darkness, Lisa Neighbour chose to work with light.

Gordon Hatt

1. From Bullfinch's Mythology, Chapter XXIX.
2. Oliver Girling, "The Coup: No contest. Lisa Neighbour's show at the Red Head Gallery," Eye,  30 Dec. 1993.
3. To get a sense of ecological awareness and alarm in the art community in the early 1990s, see  Jocelyn Laurence, "Water, Earth & Air: Visions of Our Endangered Planet," editorial,  Canadian Art, Winter 1990.
4. See among others L. Lapham, "Sermons in Mixed Media," Harper's, May 1993, pp. 4 - 5.
5. Ralph Rugoff, Just Pathetic, (Los Angeles: Rosamund Felsen Gallery, 1990).
6. Adam Gopnik, "Death in Venice," New Yorker, 2 Aug. 1993, pp. 67 73.
7. Author's interview with Lisa Neighbour, 31 Mar. 2000.
8. Carol Barbour, "Lisa Neighbour: What Do I Believe," Artword, Fall 1993.
9. A parallel might be drawn with the Russian artists Kasimir Malevich, Wasily Kandinsky and  Natalia Goncharova, who at the turn of the century developed an interest in folk art in  reaction to the existing academic models.
10. Barbour.
11. Interview.
12. Ibid.
13. "Recent Work" (Toronto: Open Studio Gallery, 1989).
14. "Lisa Neighbour: The Other Mind," press release, Red Head Gallery, Toronto, 28 June 1991.
15. Interview. Neighbour's statement from "In the Dark" is also relevant: "Darkness and light are  the archetypical symbols of Sufism because they are natural, immediate self-expressions of  a root experience of the Divinity. . . Light and darkness are, for the Sufi, metaphorical  experiences. Existence is light. When the Absolute appears to the consciousness of the  mystic, it appears as uncontaminated unity, as light. All multiplicity disappears into  darkness."   from Laleh Bakhtiar, SUFI, Expressions of the Mystic Quest (London:  Thames and Hudson, 1976), p. 91.
16. Dai Skuse, Artes Moriendi (Toronto: The Toronto Sculpture Garden, 1992).
17. The artist provided the following legend with the press release.
 Crystalomancy: gazing into a crystal ball to divine the future
 Xylomancy: tossing sticks or twigs, observing fallen branches and reading signs
 Psychomancy: intuition and psychic powers
 Arithmancy: the study of numbers and their patterns, to predict the future
 Bibliomancy: reading random passages from books and interpreting their predictions
 Cephalomancy: dissection of animal or human brains for clues to upcoming events
 Cyclomancy: the use of a revolving device to reveal numbers, letters or symbols
 Aeromancy: observation of the atmospheric conditions for portents of the future
 Oculomancy: examination of a person's eyes to determine their future
 Botanomancy: observing the growth of plants and seeds to foresee future events
 Anthropomancy: the dissection and examination of the entrails of human and animal  sacrifices
 Ornithomancy: reading the behaviour and appearance of birds
 Pyromancy: looking for omens in the burning of various materials, sacred fires and candles
 Astromancy: divination by the movements of the moon and planets, an early form of  astrology
   from Lisa Neighbour, "In the Dark," press release, Red Head Gallery, Toronto, May 16,  1993.
18. Lisa Neighbour, "In the Dark," artist's statement, Red Head Gallery, Toronto, 1993.
19. In Toronto, the Nether Mind collective had been exhibiting in the dark, dank basements of old  factory buildings since 1991.

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