Art Scene

January 2000


By Mario Cutajar

One of the oddities of the 20th century is that while an entire industry dedicated to entertainment was coming into being and inexorably eclipsing the mass appeal of the fine arts, critical attention remained fixed on the relatively inconsequential activities of a self-inflated avant-garde. The various little avant-gardes that populate textbooks dedicated to 20th-century art history owe both their radicalism and their short life span to their insular self-removal from society. They played to the critics and the critics returned the favor by favoring art in such a way as to make it synonymous with their frankly marginal activities.

A consequence of this cozy arrangement has been the critical disdain accorded any form or work of art guilty of to easily in sync with popular taste. Characteristic too have been ann essentially artificial distinction between "commercial" art and the real thing, which qualifies as the real thing by affecting an exaggerated disinterest in its own marketability.

In the case of neon artist Michael Flechtner we have an artist who works in the ambiguous space between the commercial and the personal. Now the personal is a great deal more elusive than we are apt to make it out to be, as elusive ultimately as the difference between a personal preference and a demographic probability. Strength of feeling has very little to do with it: The most passionately held beliefs and inclinations turn out to be as demographically predictable as the brand of clothes we wear and the alcoholic beverages we drink. This makes the very notion of self-expression problematic. And particularly so when an artist such as Flechtner employs a medium that completely excludes gesture, is resistant to any but the most deliberate kind of manipulation, and has a long standing association with signage. Given these restrictions an artist's only recourse, as far as expressing something personal is concerned, is through iconography and to a lesser extent through craft (because a dedication to craft is in itself revealing).

Flechtner's craft is impeccable. And this is no mean thing. Neon is a graphic medium; it is drawing with light, except that the fluidity so easily achieved in drawing with pencil and paper has to be completely and laboriously feigned by bending glass tubing. To get the desired effect, economy of means and flawless execution are essential. As Flechtner himself has remarked, in a successful work the difficulty of execution remains hidden.

Flechtner's iconography tends to ward a recognizably L.A.-flavored Pop surrealism that blends wit, sci-fi icons, and Eastern philosophy. As we discover from the artist's remarks about a complex, three-dimensional, interactive piece like Seagoat--a shark (whose body encloses the luminous outlines of a hand, a truck, a boom box, and a plane) baited by a license plate--the elements of this iconography all have personal meaning, but they also situate the author in a time and a place that are not exclusively personal. In the end, all these considerations are superfluous. Flechtner's Pop is Pop without the irony, or at any rate without any but the gentlest of ironies. I don't know if it can be classed as fine art or finely wrought kitsch, but it is to its credit that through sheer verve and a delight in the marvelous possibilities of technology, it renders the distinction a moot one