Famously, Post-Impressionist painters flocked to the south of France in search of the area’s unique late summer light. Today, there’s a similar reason to head south: an important exhibition of over thirty light-based artworks by American artist Keith Sonnier. ‘Light Works’ at Nice’s MAMAC (Musée d’Art Moderne et d’Art Contemporain) is a major presentation of the post-minimalist artist’s works incorporating neon light tubes. Examples date from the early days of Sonnier’s practise in the 1960s up to the present day, offering a comprehensive – and at times dazzling – display of colour and light.

Keith Sonnier, ‘Ba-O-Ba VI’, 1970. Courtesy of Keith Sonnier. Photograph by Isabella Smith.

Keith Sonnier, ‘Ba-O-Ba VI’, 1970. Courtesy of Keith Sonnier. Photograph by Isabella Smith.

Sonnier’s works incorporate a host of materials including fabric, metal, glass, used consumer goods, and found natural objects; tellingly, the artist studied anthropology alongside art in his native Louisiana. Bright neons jut out from walls, as works such as ‘Dot Dash Corner’ (1979) superficially recall the austere language of minimalism. Yet Sonnier’s anthropological interests manifest in a narrative quality to the works, which are ultimately more expressive than those of his contemporaries working in neon, such as Dan Flavin. Pieces act as ‘riddles’ or coded messages to be unravelled. This is particularly true in works made over the last twenty years incorporating used consumer goods. These are occasionally heavy-handed, as in 2004’s ‘USA: War of the Worlds’, which features a world globe and the American flag tangled up with bits of a bin. However, for the most part the work on show is intriguing and engaging, rewarding close attention. Some are based on studies of geometry, some sit like wiry scribbles in space, while others deal with language and its written forms or offer implicit comments on artistic movements and concepts of the day.

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Keith Sonnier, installation detail of ‘Dis-Play II’, 1970. Courtesy of Keith Sonnier. Photograph by Isabella Smith.

One of the most pleasing aspects of ‘Light Works’ is the attention paid to the effects of light in MAMAC’s many-sided rooms. Polished grey floors reflect back light, creating double visions of  Sonnier’s colourful sculptures. ‘Ba-O-Ba VI’ (1970) is from a series titled after the Haitian-French term for ‘light bath’, which acts as a rejoinder to contemporary artistic examinations of painting’s flat planes. Foam rubber rectangles ringed about with multi-coloured neons cascade from a singular position on the wall to the floor, marking a move from the two-dimensional into three-dimensional, lived space. More literally immersive is the site-specific ‘Passage Azur’ (2015), a light-filled corridor which bathes visitors in pale blue-green light.

The focal point of the exhibition is the spectacular ‘Dis-Play II’ (1970), inspired in part by India’s annual Holi Colour Festival: an installation of geometric shapes, scattered powder pigment, black light, neons, and a flashing strobe. This piece references minimalism’s serious forms while playfully undermining them through sheer messiness, the use of bright colour (notably, hot pink and luminous green) and a sense of fun. Positioned by the exit, one leaves the show with a vivid impression of an oeuvre spanning over five decades yet never diminishing in its luminous intensity.

By Isabella Smith

Keith Sonnier, ‘Light Works’, at MAMAC (Musée d’Art Moderne et d’Art Contemporain), Nice, France, from June 12th until November 29th 2015.