One of the more interesting aspects of the stellar exhibition Elusive Signs: Bruce Nauman Works with Light at Henry Art Gallery is an artwork by Nauman that isn't part of the traveling exhibition. It's in the silvery elevator, where the Henry often gamely tucks its gems. It's an hour-long 8 mm video called Manipulating a Fluorescent Tube from 1969 that shows the skinny young artist on the floor in his studio, assuming and holding various postures with the tube.
He lies on top of the tube. He sits, straight backed, holding the tube behind him like the vertical bar of a crucifix, striking the pose whose crossed form recalls the most basic building block of the oldest type of art, picture making. The poses do not seem planned. He holds each for a while, as if absorbing unseen, intimate details about the light and its tube. He invites boredom almost as an intoxicant. And he is trying on an obstinately noncinematic way of making video, by laying his own extended still episodes over the technology's rapid frames.
All this with nothing but a light, a room, a body, and a voracious mind. Material poverty is, in fact, Nauman's best medium. Henry chief curator Liz Brown added Manipulating a Fluorescent Tube to the show to underscore this classic point, and she also put in the eight-minute video Pulling Mouth from the same year, in which the artist turns a simple mouth motion into a full-fledged horror film with the eeriness of David Lynch, the suspense of Alfred Hitchcock, and the gore of Sam Raimi. Brown organized the addition of these two works not only to the exhibition, but to the museum's collection as well.
Elusive Signs, curated by Joseph D. Ketner II for the Milwaukee Art Museum, is the first exhibition to examine the whole history of Nauman's work in neon, from when he cast the left half of his body in neon templates in 1966 to his text masterpiece 100 Live and Die in 1984 and his full-on moving figure portraits the following year. Also reconstructed for Elusive Signs is Helman Gallery Parallelogram, an oddly shaped room awash in a green fluorescent light that turns skin and teeth deathly, like a morbid, authoritarian version of James Turrell's Skyspace upstairs.
Much of the show is from the dark side of light, which is perfect for the Henry's subterranean galleries. The work is painful to look at for too long, its flickering parts exploding continuously on the retina. It makes me suspicious about why more contemporary art isn't made to unsettle and scare me, given that the world it reflects so thoroughly does.
Nauman's sordid, flashing depiction of a dead man's erection (Hanged Man, 1985) and the morbid hysterics of his Mean Clown Welcome (also 1985) accentuate the prisonlike appearance of Carsten Höller's Neon Circle, on display nearby, which transforms Neon Circle from a stoner gadget into something more trenchant, akin to but more powerful and engrossing than the politically charged neon work of Ivan Navarro. (Does Olafur Eliasson have a dark side, by the way?) Seattle collectors the Trues gave the Henry the Höller piece, first seen in Seattle at their nonprofit space, Western Bridge, during the 2004 exhibition WOW (The Work of the Work), a study of art's effects on the viewer organized by Brown. Nauman's work is phenomenological, but it is also topical, from the militaristic machismo of Five Marching Men to the AIDS allusions of White Anger, Red Danger, Yellow Peril, Black Death (both 1985).
The reassuring truth about the current exhibition is that Nauman is a great artist: a humorist, a magician, a memorialist, an empathizer, a withering critic. His subjects are life and death. 100 Live and Die is a set of words (love, laugh, red, yellow, fuck, shit), each one rendered in neon with the word "live" or the word "die" ("laugh and die," "red and live"). It is the most unlikely premise in the world that a man using some plain words could have turned a neon sign into such physiological and psychological fireworks. But he did.