The Physicality of Neon

CIRCA Gallery
Apr 5, 2019 3:51PM

“The whole body reacts to color. If you were to walk into an all-neon-pink room, it would be difficult not to react. I think it is a unified, human thing to feel color with everything. It is like standing next to a bass speaker plugged into your eyeballs.” — Jim Drain, painter [i]

Devra Freelander
Fluorescent Fragment 51, 2018
CIRCA Gallery

Historically, neon as we know it is relatively new. The first neon signs debuted in 1910 and artists were not far behind in utilizing it as an artistic medium circa 1934.[ii] The popularization of neon coloring in paints and inks can arguably be attributed to Andy Warhol, reaching widespread marketability (particularly in fashion) by the 1980s.


Neon colors are notable for their bright, saturated hues, but can have an impact on the senses other than just visual stimulation—spending time with a fluorescent artwork can even shift energies. Lindsy Halleckson (Minneapolis, MN) examines the relationship between human senses and that of our natural, physical environment in her paintings. Rather than attempt to paint silence itself, her work particularizes physical sensations that intensify when external noise, chatter, and endless stimuli fall away. She utilizes a neon side to blur the edges of her paintings; the color reflects from the canvas onto the wall, therefore the wall also becomes a part of the painting, as does the ambient light of the room.

Lindsy Halleckson
Ponytail, 2018
CIRCA Gallery

Side detail of Ponytail

Study, 2019

Detail of Study

CIRCA artist Laura Stack (Minneapolis, MN) sources her inspiration for neon colors in her ink paintings from natural sources. Microorganisms, marine life, bioluminescence and humanity’s changing relationship with the natural world play a role in her work. The surface quality provided by the ink in Stack's paintings only adds to the luminescence of the colors, supplementing the composition with subtle shimmer and gloss effects.

Laura Stack
Primordia #10, 2019
CIRCA Gallery
Laura Stack
Primordia #4, 2019
CIRCA Gallery


Vivid, punchy colors seem to be making a resurgence; Pantone’s Color of the Year for the past three years (2017-2019) have been bright and saturated. Greenery, Ultra Violet, and Living Coral all provide an optimistic view as opposed to previous years of pastels and more muted hues. A former board member of CMG (Color Marketing Group, of which Pantone is a member) said “politics, pop culture, sports, technology and social issues” all influence the selection of the Color of the Year.[iii]

Unlike some colors, neon pigments aren’t a casual or easy place to land, and aren’t mixed through traditional color theory methods. Additionally, they can pose an interesting question to color composition and harmony since they don’t exactly fit on the color wheel. The use of these colors is always deliberate on the part of the artist, providing a specific visual environment for the viewer to get lost in.


Unexpected, but beautifully nuanced uses of neon color characterizes the spiritual, earthy oil and cold wax paintings of James Edward Scherbarth (Minneapolis, MN). His work dives into a nature-based spirituality through abstracted landscape themes and stone forms. Based on a Celtic belief in animism, this work emerged from a relationship with nature in which there is a sacredness in everything that resonates with those who listen and observe. While his work primarily utilizes earth tones and textures, he expertly incorporates bright neon moments into some of his pieces, providing a colorful moment to transcend into that realm of spiritualism, carried by the neon pigment.

James Edward Scherbarth
Inner Sanctum
CIRCA Gallery

All of this work speaks to the use of highly saturated neon color to evoke a multisensory and/or emotional reaction and experience. Visually and conceptually blurring lines between physical object, light, digital form, and the constraints of edges, these artists operate in a tenuous in-between state to deliberately bring about these experiences for their viewers.

Timothy Schmitz
MCC - LGY, 2018
CIRCA Gallery

—k. anderson-larson


James Edward Scherbarth is CIRCA's current featured artist, with new work on view through April 13, 2019.

[i] Ledgerwood, Angela. Interview with Jim Drain. Interview Magazine. 8 November 2012.

[ii] Sheerin, Mark. “The Enduring Glow of Neon Art.” Hyperallergic. 28 November 2016.

[iii] Bartlett, James. “How, exactly, does a ‘Color of the Year’ get chosen?” Los Angeles Times. 02 December 2015.

CIRCA Gallery