why we're all so obsessed with neon
In the era of 'fake news' and reality star presidents, neon is everywhere, allowing us to revel in the hyperreal.
Signe Pierce 'Synthetic Lust'; Still from 'The Neon Demon'
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been in love with neon. When I’d visit family in crowded cities in Russia, the buzz of neon street sights almost felt magical. When I got a Tumblr in middle school, I really fell hard for the aesthetic. I wanted everything in my life to be neon — from my bedroom lights and the art I made to the feelings that I had. I wanted everything to pulse and glow — to be at risk of getting too hot and burning out.
In 2018, neon seems to represent this fusion of decadence and decay, and it’s everywhere. It’s in SoulCycle, but it’s also in that gross bar on Avenue C, too. It’s all over our museums and films — most of which, of course, are created by millennials, for millennials. So why has our generation brought back neon? What’s so alluring and now about this actually century old form of lighting? Is it psychological? Is it just a trend picked out by some startup dudes in Silicon Valley?
In a world where reality stars are presidents and everything is apparently fake, neon represents our subconscious desire to embrace hyperreality. For our generation, neon registers as an out-of-body escape — a colorscape that allows us to revel in the unreal, even if it’s just for a few hours in a movie theatre, or for a night on a lit-up dancefloor.
The form of light was first invented in Paris in 1910 by the chemist Georges Claude. Soon it was popularized worldwide, the signs all over Hollywood streets and featured in films like Sunset Boulevard. New York City’s landmark Pepsi-Cola billboard is still cherry red and glowing alongside the East River seventy-seven years later, a perfect emblem of summertime Americana. Neon was seen as the most luxe form of light imaginable, but as the 20th century tilted towards now, neon became a signifier of shabbiness, the signs popping up in dirty dive bars and sidestreet sex shops.
If you’ve been on the Internet in the past five years, you’ve seen Signe Pierce’s work. Her hyper-saturated images have been reblogged on Tumblr hundreds of thousands of times — and been in galleries everywhere from NYC to Vienna.
In a phone conversation from her workspace in Times Square, she tells me that her love affair with neon really began when she first moved to Los Angeles. “Before I moved to LA, I had been feeling like there was something missing in my life here in New York. And I realized it was kind of this electric glow.” She continues: “LA is the biggest cultural city on the West Coast, and it’s sort of the last edge of modernity. It’s the land of stimulation, the land of media and creating fantasies and exporting them into reality.”
But beyond being inspired by LA, she also was struck by the 2013 Harmony Korine film Spring Breakers: “I genuinely gravitated towards the aesthetic and lighting in that film. I thought it was a really interesting portrait of weird late-capitalism America.”
Upon its release, there was nothing quite like Spring Breakers, with all its fluorescence and flashiness, the girls with their pink masks and glowing bikinis. The film was the first commercial success for production company A24, which ever since has dominated youth culture cinema by distributing other visually intense films (like the Timothée Chalamet-starring film Hot Summer Nights, or Moonlight and The Florida Project, two other examples of moody Floridian masterpieces). A similar company NEON also, um, obviously produces neon-orientated films — just look at any random still from The Bad Batch, Gemini, or the highly anticipated Assassination Nation.
In “neon-noir” films — an update on classic film noir — the shadows are neon-accented and the paranoia is saturated and dizzying. David Lynch is one artist who’s glued our love of escapist filmmaking to this kind of set design — anything from Twin Peaks to Mulholland Dr. drips with neon. Nicolas Winding Refn is notably colorblind, and so his neon-noir films like The Neon Demon and Drive burn with highly contrasted primary colors. Gaspar Noé, yet another auteur working in this violent, escapist genre, captured the imaginations of creatives like Frank Ocean and Harmony Korine when he released 2009’s drugged-out Tokyo thriller Enter the Void. Korine went on to recruit Noé’s cinematographer Benoît Debie for Spring Breakers, telling Debie he wanted the film to look “very colorful, very candy.” Debie has since worked on the extremely neon-noir video for Rihanna’s Bitch Better Have My Money — probably the truest millennial anthem we have.
Companies like A24, filmmakers like Gaspar Noé, and artists like Signe Pierce were a huge part of making neon-soaked images synonymous with youth culture. Yet other companies like Let There Be Neon, located in downtown Manhattan, now work alongside major clients and corporations to continue this trend. Though the company is currently celebrating its 40th year in business, the studio is making more work than ever, creating signs for brands ranging from sweetgreen to Nike.
“Neon straddles this very interesting line between the past and the future,” owner Jeff Friedman tells me. He’s thrilled that the love for neon’s spreading like a virus, and that young artists are coming to the medium unjaded and inspired. “To me neon is very romantic. Rudi Stern — the founder of our company, who passed away 11 years ago — was a really wonderful writer, and he always wrote that neon was a part of the American landscape. And I think that’s such a beautiful image — and so true.”
So perhaps neon has latched on so much today because we all want more romance in our day-to-day lives. Or is it more than that? When I asked Signe if she thought neon could be viewed as an an aesthetic that’s perhaps political, she responds:
“You know, the proliferation of neon in pop culture is probably less of a political statement or affiliation, and more of a signifier to escape reality — channeling a fantasy into reality. But it is also kind of political because things are so fucked up right now that we just want to put a filter on everything. Sometimes I even really question whether my work is perpetuating this desire to really go into a faux reality — that’s really what my photo series Faux Realities is sort of about. Sometimes I feel my work can be a little too escapist.”
Neon artist Kate Hush — who’s made work for the very neon, very 2018 Riverdale — agrees. “Neon is absolutely a form of escape for people,” she says. “I go home, lay down in bed, turn on my deep pink neon, and it somehow feels as if I’m in a more stimulating place than if I went in there and flipped on an LED bulb. It’s soothing and enveloping to me. I’m home, but I’m also in this otherworldly space at the same time.”
So maybe we’re in such a neon time because we find this colorscape therapeutic and escapist. Maybe we love it because it’s simply unnatural, unable to be found in sunsets and the real world — or maybe it’s because of that decay/decadence dichotomy. But it’s clear that our generation responds to this aesthetic, this form of light that glows and tells us that this is nothing but gas and light, but this is also more than real than anything else.
“Neon is definitely going to be an aesthetic that is significant for this era of late Obama/early Trump,” Signe tells me, as she looks out at one of those ludicrous Fox News “real news” ads out her window. “We’re going to look back at this color palette and be like, ‘Ohh, that was the Trump era. That time when we were all trying to escape reality.’”