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Back to Reviews 97

Keith Sonnier
"Alternating Currents,"

© ArtNet Worldwide 1997

david ebony's
new york top ten

keith sonnier
at leo castelli

Mar. 22-Apr. 26, 1997

This exhibition of recent neon and electrical-transmission wall sculptures by Keith Sonnier, collectively titled "Alternating Currents," is literally shocking. There are signs in the gallery warning visitors not to touch the electrified black wire fences that the artist has set up throughout the space. The fences are arranged in a way that seems designed to control the flow of traffic. It's not that the Louisiana-born artist treats his audience like cattle, rather, the fences seem to function as a means to slow down New York's frantic art-viewers and help guide them through this amazing show. After interviewing a member of the gallery staff who admitted that the fences give only a very minor shock, I tested them to find that the warning signs were more jolting in visual terms than the wires were in terms of touch.

Seven neon works in the front room are composed of thin lines of bright colors. They suggest fanciful, abstracted figures. The artist says that the designs are related to images of ancient fertility goddesses and of the Hindu god, Ganesh. In some of the works Sonnier incorporates household objects, such as plastic bottles and laundry soap containers, which he salvaged from the home of his late parents. Subtly embedded into the compositions, the objects are gently illuminated by the colorful neon glow.

Pulsating and buzzing in the back room are two curious electronic wall sculptures that look like highly stylized science-museum demonstrations of a Jacob's ladder. In fact, they result from the artist's study of the work of Nicola Tesla, the scientist who invented a transformer to produce high voltages of a high-frequency alternating current. Sonnier, in this high-voltage show, has invented a new way to experience the world.