By Ciara LaVelle
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In a blood-red work Bruce Nauman created in 1970, the word war is spelled out in neon tubing, with several cables snaking to a black transformer box on the floor.
The piece seems to detonate like a bomb, the letters popping in reverse, countdown style. First the r flashes on and off, next the a ignites and remains on, then both the w and r light up to form war, before flaming out and sparking the sequence again.
Raw/War is one of sixteen of the pioneer artist's intricate wordplay and figurative neons and fluorescent-light environments, dating from the 1960s to the 1980s, on display in "Elusive Signs: Bruce Nauman Works with Light" at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA).
Created during the height of the Vietnam War, in a year that saw the Kent State shootings and the trial of American officers for their role in the My Lai massacre, Raw/War is a garish indictment of the violence and upheaval of the times that still hits close to home today.
The traveling retrospective was organized by the Milwaukee Museum of Art and curated by Joseph D. Ketner II. Its opening at MoCA coincides with a period when American casualties are mounting in Iraq, where on average four soldiers die each day.
Nauman once remarked he would like to have his work make an impact on viewers like the crack of a baseball bat on the head. With much of the work on exhibit here, he successfully gets his licks in.
In White Anger, Red Danger, Yellow Peril, Black Death, a large swastika-shape piece, the words of the title flash on together; then the phrases switch on and off individually in a clockwise sequence suggesting a dog chasing its own tail.
The political nature of the work overtly addresses issues of genocide, racism, and totalitarian regimes. Despite its radiant glow, up close the piece exudes a menacing vibe, at times crackling like a bug zapper.
The exhibit, whose neon glares throughout the space in an almost carnivalesque fashion, is arranged chronologically. Nauman uses light as a medium through which he explores how perception is shaped and how logic and meaning are conveyed.
Nauman has always been fascinated by word games, snapping language like a rubber band and teasing with irony-laced puns, anagrams, and palindromes that often leave spectators reeling.
On the surface, Nauman's visual romps between words and meaning might appear simple, but immersion reveals a brutal complexity and the artist's frustration with the human condition.
Life, Death, Love, Hate, Pleasure, Pain is a huge circular piece that engulfs the viewer. Encapsulating the fundamental nature of the human experience, the work features pink, green, blue, and orange words that flash in circles and then backward and forward in increasingly hypnotic patterns.
The exhibit also houses two of Nauman's monumental fluorescent environments originally created in 1971 and re-created for this show that screw with perception and wrack the senses via unmerciful stimuli.
Helman Gallery Parallelogram features a room with skewed walls drenched entirely in sickly green fluorescent light; two narrow, wedge-shape corridors are located on opposing sides. Claustrophobia will likely grip spectators who navigate the funnellike entrance into the sealed room. Inside, the acid color bleaching the space suggests a mad scientist's grow house, which very well might induce gagging. After leaving the room's oppressive confines, the retina registers the light outside as if everything were bathed in a pink hue, until the vision clears and the disorientation subsides.
Nauman continues his head games via Corridor with Mirror and White Lights (Corridor with Reflected Image). At seven inches wide, the space is so narrow that no one can pass through, perversely toying with the viewer. In fact it is so tight that people with large heads will have to grease their ears just to peer in. At the end of the corridor, which splits the space like the main sail of a clipper ship, stands a mirror, but the bilious light deprives viewers from seeing little more than a suffocating path stretching into infinity.
Some of the dizzier and most unabashedly entertaining works in the show are eye-popping figurative pieces isolated in a curtained-off room in the back of the museum.
Hanged Man, based on the familiar game in which kids try to figure out the letters of an unknown word, is a pungently hilarious take on the horror of violence.
But instead of using words, Nauman depicts a lurid stick figure assembling itself limb by limb. As the colorful neon figure fleshes itself out under the gallows, a flaccid pink penis dangles between its stems. Once the figure is complete, a different jitterbugging white neon figure jerks from a noose with his woody in full force.
Across from it, Mean Clown Welcome is a spellbinding take on alienation and people's inability to communicate honestly. It depicts two clowns in the process of shaking hands and then giving each other the brush-off.
As one of the bozos extends an oversize paw to the other, he yanks it back at the last instant. Both clowns then begin frenetically standing and crouching in a dazzling haze, their candy-color tallywhackers hopping like twitchy pogo sticks in the air.