Sensation and Memory In Sonnier Exhibition

A story that seems personal and intimate
Keith Sonnier chose to place "Rectangle Diptych" from 2013 in the gallery preceding his exhibition. Jennifer Landes

“Keith Sonnier: Until Today” is a highly selective 39-piece snapshot of his career from 1967 to the present currently on view at the Parrish Art Museum. Museums often work with living artists on these kinds of exhibitions, but don’t always give them the latitude or control a gallery or smaller space might. The objects on view in Water Mill tell a story that seems personal and intimate, something curators on their own might not be able to pull off as well. Yet, Jeffrey Grove’s curatorial catalog essay, as well as those of the other contributors, places the artist solidly in context with the major art movements afoot as he was coming to maturity as a creative force.

Given all the drama of his neon works, some of the objects on display here might not be the most alluring choices. Some seem as if they were singular bits of inspiration that became blips in an overall oeuvre, but the story they tell is mostly worth the trip to marginalia. What is maintained throughout the show is the ongoing engagement the artist has had with the architecture of the spaces in which he shows his art — how the walls and floors are the supports of most pieces with the exceptions striking in this environment.

Much has been made of Mr. Sonnier’s Cajun upbringing in Louisiana, but less attention has been paid to his travels. This show and catalog include work inspired by long trips to places like India, Japan, and Brazil, where instead of neon he took up enamel and bamboo, a variety of hardwoods, and steel.  

It also has his early series, like “Files,” long and narrow wall and floor pieces of unusual materials such as pink satin, a medium he called both funereal and sexual. While not offering much to look at, the “Files” demonstrate how Mr. Sonnier adopted and adapted the practices of the Minimalists around him at Rutgers in graduate school and in New York City during and after his studies. That he was in dialogue with Robert Morris and Richard Serra, to name just two, would not shock anyone taking in these pieces, which are freely mixed with some of the concurrent works in neon as well as the flocking and latex pieces.

“Rat Tail Exercise,” in particular, highlights the zone surrounding the meeting of wall and floor in a way that echoes Mr. Serra’s “splash/cast” works involving the throwing of hot lead at that same architectural junction, using it as a support as well as a mold. Mr. Sonnier’s “Neon Wrapping Neon” from 1969 uses the wall, the floor, and reflections to create the illusion of a three-dimensional drawing with light, all in primary colors. 

Mr. Sonnier is often singled out for his more fluid and sensual use of materials. Yet, this show brings to mind the softer side of artists also working in the late 1960s: the fabric pieces of Mr. Serra, the corner wall projections of James Turrell, and even the way certain Dan Flavin fluorescent light pieces, for all their hard edges, dissolve the intersections of the walls behind them. Add Bruce Nauman’s own neon works to the mix, and you begin to see a true conversation between these artists, with each tackling similar themes and materials in singular ways.

What sets Mr. Sonnier apart is his embrace of a more emotive approach, one that references sensations and memory along with figures however abstracted. Padded satin quilted by stitching results in one long centipede of implied pillowy flesh. In 1969’s “Ba-O-Ba I,” neon undulates or is diffused through glass to reference “moonlight on skin.”

The artist has harnessed sound and even electricity in his sculptures over the course of his career. The Parrish’s spine gallery has been transformed through his use of neon tubing in “Passage Azur.” The pitched ceiling dissolves into the vibrant energy of his colorful gassy squiggles. A scanner periodically fills the space with sound, further molding the experience of architecture through his own devices.

We find, too, that he has incorporated found or abandoned objects into his work, grabbing things from his childhood home and sending them north to his studio after his parents died. The “Antenna” series finds new aesthetic uses for technological materials that no longer serve a function in society.

The work he has made since the turn of the century continues to demonstrate his inventiveness and ceaseless inspiration. In 2004, he finds new paths for neon, mixing it with netting and fringe, or a globe and American flags, to make a statement about the then-new war in Iraq. “Circle Portals” are reminiscent of giant neon cartoon bubbleheads. Palm trees and a mastodon are directly referenced in both title and form. 

An aluminum ladder to nowhere seems like a complete outlier, but it is part of the “Abri” series, inspired by his memories of Louisiana structures such as deer blinds. The “Modern Relic” series of painted sculptures incorporates both Hydrocal and flocking, now placed on an armature to form amorphous shapes. His inclusion of painting in these sculptures is another direct challenge of the strictures of formalism. This is something he has done in various ways throughout his career, an oeuvre that has evolved in fascinating ways. As he told the Parrish’s director, Terrie Sultan, in an interview included in the catalog, “I was allowed to experiment. I didn’t have to stay within the parameters of a defining position of ‘this is what I do and this is what I’m known as.’ ”

This seemingly endless evolution is on full display in Water Mill through Jan. 27. A small show at Dia’s Dan Flavin Art Institute in Bridgehampton through May focuses on film and videos from 1968 to 1977 and a colorful installation from 1970 called “Dis-Play II,” incorporating Flavin’s favorite medium, fluorescent light, with foam rubber, strobe light, black light, neon, plywood, and glass.

“Passage Azur,” an installation first installed in Nice, France, was reconfigured by the artist for the Parrish’s spine gallery. Gary Mamay