Neon can do more than scream, "Hey, yawanna pizza?!"
At the Zenith Gallery, it slithers around slate, hides behind tribal masks and quivers in bulbous tubes like an electric bolt in Dr. Frankenstein's lab.
"This exhibit surprises people because it redefines what neon is," says Margery Goldberg, owner of the gallery, which is now displaying 46 pieces in its fifth annual neon show.
More than a thousand people visited the show during its opening week, she says. Neon fascinates. According to Goldberg, the show provokes some interesting questions: "Will neon blow up?" and "Can you wear it?"
To see this show is to confirm what advertisers have known since the first neon sign went up in Paris in 1910 -- that neon's blazing colors, streamlined contours and radioactive glow are ultimately an irresistible seduction.
Yet the bait is subtle; most pieces in the show seek to integrate neon with other mediums.
Goldberg herself combines neon and wood to form a sensual bond between the two. "I'm into altering moods," she says, "and a piece of neon does that better than 10 paintings." Sculptor Linn Westbay Woloshin, who started as a stone carver, integrates slabs of slate and neon in her wall reliefs, "Stegasauras" and "Halley's Comet."
Jeff Krueger is the only artist to focus his energy solely on neon. Krueger -- self-taught through tinkering in his shop and gleaning from Library of Congress shelves -- is one of two artists in the show to bend his own glass and mix his own gases; the others rely on glass benders.
The essence of Krueger's work radiates from "Almost Lyrical," a hypnotic panel of emerald and cobalt neon that quivers and shifts colors. The work reflects Krueger's desire to experiment with the neon gases themselves, which have been used as an artistic medium for only 15 years.
How neon works is fairly simple. Glass tubes are heated, bent and filled with gas, usually neon or argon. Mercury also can be added to produce electric blue. An electric charge is sent through the tube and ionizes the gas. Neon artists have upward of 70 colors to choose from.
Neon's erratic history began in Paris, where the first sign went up at a small barber shop on the Boulevard Montmarte in 1910. It hit the United States in 1923 with an orange Packard sign installed in Los Angeles, where it caused traffic jams. Neon caught on in part because it was a cheap and abundant energy source; it can burn for 35,000 hours.
The liquid flame was dealt a near death blow in the '50s with the advent of Golden Arches-like plastic lights.
But neon is back. "Even Republicans are buying neon," Goldberg says. And though Washington doesn't exactly hold a candle to the neon inferno of Piccadilly or the Las Vegas Strip, the city has its share of neon to offset the austere marble monuments. Try the area around the Washington Project for the Arts building on Seventh Street, Connecticut Avenue above Dupont Circle, and the business districts in Adams-Morgan, Georgetown and Takoma Park.
Commercial neon has experienced a revival in the city over the past five years in part because the use of neon in fine art has helped open people's eyes to the medium, local signmakers say. In addition to flashing in delis and bars, neon has been catching on in more upscale businesses -- Tower Records and the American Cafe, for example.
"Neon is becoming liberated from the sign," says Larry Kanter of Neon Projects. As an example, he cites the 120-foot turquoise and red curved ribbon stretched across the ceiling of the American Cafe in National Place. "And it doesn't say a word."
But signs still have their place. For Pattie Wilce, owner of the chic Georgetown hair salon Glamourama, an $800 neon sign has been a sound investment. Designed by Kanter, the turquoise sign alone has lured clients to the shop "because they think it's New Yorkish," says Wilce. "It's new and old-fashioned at the same time."
The line between commercial and fine art usually falls into the hands of glass benders like Marty King of Light'n Up Neon. She bent most of the tubes for the Zenith show.
"I like all kinds of neon," King says. "My passion is with glass bending and neon. I can see as much art in a beer sign as I do in a gallery piece."