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reviews


Jeff Weisfeld, VACANCY,argon, neon, glass tubes, glass and steel supports

JEFF WEISFELD: BODYBUILDER & SPORTSMAN • CHICAGO, ILLINOIS

Located on a busy Chicago street among a variety of retail and entertainment establishments, this storefront gallery, in a space once occupied by a sporting-goods shop, seemed a fitting venue for Jeff Weisfeld's work. Weisfeld creates sculptures, paintings and installations in the ubiquitous commercial-sign medium, neon. Yet, unlike the standard light-up sign that strives to persuade its viewers to make a simple, quick decision–buy these sneakers, drink this beer–Weisfeld's art often provokes prolonged contemplation.

On the day I saw this show, two young women stood outside Bodybuilder & Sportsman considering one of Weisfeld's works displayed in the galleryÕs front window. About a half dozen two- to three-inch-long amber tubes glowed on the sill. "I know," one woman eventually said to the other, "french fries." In spite of the work's title, grass, this was a plausible interpretation; the neon tubes looked like McDonald's fries. This ambiguity suggested something intriguing awaited passersby inside Bodybuilder & Sportsman. grass seemed a much better lure than any of the neon signs in nearby store windows.

Inside the gallery, more neon pieces awaited. Although I could immediately identify the subjects of most of these works, they nonetheless piqued my interest just as grass had. On one wall hung VACANCY, the only neon "painting" in the show: a series of red-orange and turquoise neon tubes attached, like paint on a canvas, to a 30" x 30" flat, white wood surface. In this color scheme reminiscent of Howard JohnsonÕs, vacancy depicts an empty, generic hotel room awaiting guests. The red-orange tube frames the turquoise tubes, which form the outlines of two beds, a nightstand, doorways, and wall lights.

VACANCY's title, of course, refers not only to the room it depicts, but also to the signs, often in neon, that hang in the office windows of many hotels, motels, lodge, and motor inns. But those signs give specific information. The room of Weisfeld's "painting" could represent thousands of hotels and could conjure up thousands of memories. Guests usually stay at hotels under exceptional circumstances–a family vacation, a honeymoon, a secret rendez-vous. The room of VACANCY might therefore remind viewers of some of the most memorable events in their own lives. VACANCY 's interpretation is limited only by the number of people who look at the work. Weisfeld's own interpretation is informed by the emotionally loaded years he spent in his youth at the inn run by his stepfather in Upstate New York. It can thus be viewed as a symbol, rendered in a very public medium, of Weisfeld's private, personal history.

None of the three neon sculptures on display attempt the emotional resonance of VACANCY. They are playfully humorous works concerned with formal issues of line, space, and form. All three works–CHAIR, COATHOOK and BOX–are essentially three-dimensional line drawings, with a single glass tube defining the form of each subject. All depict weight-bearing objects, yet none seems capable of holding anything heavier than a feather.

Affixed to a 1' square, 4" thick concrete patio block, a thin, glass tube eratically traces the outline of the back, legs, arms and seat of the 10" high chair. Inside the tube, a line of blue gas wiggles and swirls in what seems to be a desperate attempt to stay intact. CHAIR seemed much too delicate to display unprotected. Equally fragile, the life-size COATHOOK hung on the back of a door leading to the workroom behind the exhibition space of Bodybuilder & Sportsman. If anyone were to put this sculpture to use, the hook would probably break under the weight of the coat.

As the door opened to reveal COATHOOK, I noticed a mysterious, cool blue light bathing the otherwise dark back room. Curious to find the source of this light, I wandered into the room and discovered BOX a 20" x 14" x 14" neon cube, on the floor tucked between some work benches. Neon in the back room of what is essentially a store (galleries are in business to sell art) at first seemed absurd. Neon is supposed to be in the front window, or at least on the sales floor coaxing customers to buy. Yet this unconventional placement BOX of actually increased its appeal, and, therefore, presumably made it more marketable. I don't think its glow would have been nearly as enticing out in the main part of the gallery. Indeed, CHAIR is the same electric color as BOX but didn't have quite as much allure perched on a pedestal in the gallery proper. Moreover, BOX was displayed where a real cardboard box might normally be found: in a work space awaiting contents to be added or removed. I found this real-world placement so amusing, and the glow of BOX so sumptuous, that I overlooked some of its details. Not until a later conversation with the artist did I realize that the neon tube outlines only two of the four sides of a cardboard container.Ironically, this omission of two sides both increases and decreases the realism of BOX. When we look at a box, we can only see two sides, although we know there are actually four. Similarly, when I looked at BOX, I saw two sides and assumed there were two more. But without those two other sides, box isn't a complete container, and therefore, like CHAIR and COATHOOK, it can't hold anything.

When done viewing BOX, I returned to the rest of the gallery to briefly re-survey the show. Looking at Jeff Weisfeld's art one last time, I concluded that the tempting promise of the few tubes of gas in the front window had been fulfilled. I was glad to have finally found some truth in advertising.

John Judge

Chicago, Illinois 2000