Art Focus: Old-Fashioned Signs at the Museum of Neon Art

The Museum of Neon Art (MONA) is a 28-year-old non-profit art institution hidden in the posh section of downtown Los Angeles. The current exhibition showcases pre-neon signs, “quackery devices,” a vintage postcard collection, and neon signs reminiscent of Las Vegas.The MONA is a very small museum: its main space is about the size of Edmunds Ballroom. And I had the whole museum to myself.To get in, one must ring a bell and wait until the attendant opens the door.The big room is an open space, enclosed in white walls, with a variety of neon signs. In the center of the room, towards the back, a neon lady—about six feet long—hovers over the neon words, “Fun Land.” Across from the neon lady stands one of the “pre-neon” signs—Plexiglass signs lighted from behind—from the late ’60s to early ’70s: “The Pep Boys, Manny, Moe and Jack.” The national auto-parts chain donated the piece to the museum. Next to this sign stands a General Electric sign that resembles the Pep Boys piece, but was made in 1935.Sign-designer Larry Albright is the most represented artist at the MONA. The museum explains that Albright’s “myriad collections embody the humor, knowledge, and persistent curiosity that continue to be the impetus behind MONA’s mission.” Albright is known for his work with Plasma Globe, a technology that legendary inventor Nikola Tesla worked with. Plasma Globes became popular in the ’80s and ’90s after Albright began mass-producing them. Albright has also worked making neon special effects in films like

Star Wars

and

Blade Runner

. The museum contains a few untitled Albright pieces that look like light sabers.Of particular note is a Plasma Globe shaped into a magic lamp, standing on top of a small wooden radio. The piece was created in 2007, and is entitled “Aladdin’s Lamp Radio.” How original. There is also a similar piece, made in 1978, called “Reddy Kilowatt.” Commissioned by the government-sponsored Comprehensive Employment Training Act (CETA), Reddy Kilowatt was a cartoon spokesperson for electric companies across the U.S. with a body made of lightning bolts and light bulb for a nose.Another piece, entitled “Electric Daisy,” stood out from the others for its simplicity and because it was not part of an advertising campaign or a logo. David Svenson and Kazumi Kobayashi created the piece in 2006. At first sight, it is only a large wooden square hanging on the wall with a lit-up butterfly at its center. This butterfly becomes the center of a daisy as a succession of concentric squiggly rings, comprised of two entwined neon lights, light up around the butterfly to finally reveal a full daisy.Though the MONA has a limited collection and limited number of artists, the museum is in the middle of acquiring a bigger space for its collection. Through the Living Urban Museum of Electric and Neon Signs (LUMENS), MONA hosts a free exhibition of neon signs for the LA community. The LUMENS project has helped to relight 150 neon signs of historical significance through LA’s Wilshire corridor, Hollywood district and downtown.

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