“Functional art needs a new definition, I think!” says Lisa Schulte, aka the Neon Queen. We’re speaking in her light-bending studio in an industrial area northwest of Los Angeles, where her empire Nights of Neon operates a hybrid business that encompasses high-end private and commercial commissions as well as a dedicated original and collaborative fine art practice.
“I’m both an artisan and craftsperson,” Schulte says. “I came from an understanding of the medium, and I always wondered, what is possible with this? What are its limitations? I learned it all for myself, I hit early roadblocks where people said, no that can’t be done! And I took up those challenges. I had to prove it for myself.” And prove it she has done, as more than 25 years into her explorations of the neon genre, she’s having a bigger moment than ever.
In her own signature designs for wall and floor, Schulte is after effects that build on the way painting and sculpture already function. Although there are crossover appeals with signage and other text-based art, with neon there is always an additional aspect of functionality. “Light goes in so many directions,” says Schulte. “It fills a space in a way conventional painting and sculpture can’t.” And if, for example, her unique driftwood and white neon pieces also happen to function as lamplight, or her wall of vintage-inspired signage at Grand Central Market activates architectural design, then so be it.
In addition to her big-ticket clients, Schulte also pursues a robust program of collaborations with other contemporary artists. From Richard Jackson to Cleon Peterson, Gregory Siff, Jason Rhoades, Tavares Strachan and new-to-neon artists like Alex Couwenberg. (It’s his first time. She gets that a lot.) “With Cleon,” she recalls, “it was a great example of how it’s possible to work with people to translate not just a given image but a whole sensibility into light and line. That was a real pleasure.” Collaboration can be a tricky business, but the way Schulte does it, the process remains creative and empathetic. There are 3-D computer software programs, a lot of math and science — but it’s all still 100 percent handmade with painting, bending and welding.
The art world has caught on now that neon can be a true medium for fine art and expression, something of value. But at the same time, the craze has caused a saturation point, especially with the ubiquity of neon writing — often predicated on the banality of the text. It’s as tiring as it is compelling, and there are persistent disconnects with authorship and vision. “People see something and feel, well, that would be easy to copy! I’ll just go order myself a Tracey Emin! They take a photo, trace the words and order a copy from a factory where the people may not realize they are helping rip someone off. It’s happened to me.”
Schulte has a big gallery show coming up in Dallas, where they are eager to install a far-ranging survey all her various series. But local audiences will have their chance too, as an upcoming show of contemporary neon artists is planned for this summer at Eastern Projects Gallery in Chinatown, curated by fellow lightbender Linda Sue Price. Schulte is making a brand-new installation piece for the show, inspired by her recent experience showing at the Pop Austin festival.
“I was at Pop Austin last year,” she remembers, “and the selfie situation was outrageous! We were hanging out in the exhibition, drinking wine, and I just watched dozens and dozens of people come through, seem to really respond to and love the work, take pictures and selfies — and never once did anyone so much as check the wall label to see who made the art!” Schulte understands the Instagram appeal of her work, but at the same time, she was moved to make an installation satirizing the phenomenon. Her piece at Eastern Projects involves mannequins and obstacles — and she’s resigned to its inevitable, earnest appearance in Instagram feeds.
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“I’m learning to live with being eye candy,” she laughs. “I’m just trying to have fun with it now.”