Up in Neon: Works by François Morellet and Frederic Bouffandeau, Zane Bennett Contemporary Art, 435 S. Guadalupe St., 505-982-8111; through May 22

The gaseous element neon was discovered by British chemists in 1898. Very soon after, it was manipulated into sealed tubes by early industrialists and sold to advertisers, who immediately recognized neon lighting’s ability to alert and entice. By the 1960s, neon lights were a ubiquitous feature of the urban landscape, so its use as an art material is hardly surprising. Zane Bennett Contemporary Art’s Up in Neon showcases the work of two French artists, François Morellet and Frederic Bouffandeau, who employ neon for the same purpose these earliest applications had: to get our attention.

The gallery’s many-windowed downstairs space is drenched in natural light, which makes vivid lighting, no matter how artistically conceived, seem somewhat superfluous. The gallerists have therefore wisely kept the first floor showing mainly prints and drawings, which hang alongside several mostly monochromatic neon pieces from Morellet. The considerably more colorful art of Bouffandeau is displayed upstairs. Morellet, a geometric abstractionist who will turn ninety next year, explored a range of mediums before he was drawn to neon in the early 1960s, and the handful of neon works on view present a compelling study of his restrained approach to the material. Lamentable (Despicable), from 2008, is a looping section of pale-blue neon tubing that is suspended from the ceiling, gently coiling down onto the floor. The artist’s two-dimensional pieces, including canvases, prints, and drawings, are straightforwardly geometric, using mostly black-and-white lines and simple shapes in the mien of Frank Stella or Sol LeWitt. Untitled (Diagonals), a serigraph on ragboard from 1970, features an allover pattern of zigzagging black lines that calls to mind interlocked paper clips, arranged across the composition with mechanical precision. The energetic quality of Morellet’s two-dimensional art seems especially ingenious when juxtaposed with the actual electricity that is part of his work in neon.

Bouffandeau’s pieces, which consist of linked squiggly neon tubes in bright colors like red, green, yellow, and blue, can feel reminiscent of the Olympic logo. Sprouting from the center of the two vertically linked rings in his Untitled 1, from 2014, is a pair of horizontal, opened spheres that splits the structure apart in an abstracted approximation of a blooming flower. Somehow the work’s artificial light casts an organic, cozy warmth onto the gallery’s darkened walls. Its exposed electrical cords reach down to the floor, where they meet circuit boxes — a behind-the-scenes glimpse of technical “innards” that lends the gleaming lights above an unexpected intimacy.

Whether blinking maniacally on crowded city streets, hissing softly outside darkened storefronts, or casting a gentle, slightly eerie glow down narrow alleyways, neon lights exist to make us look. Morellet and Bouffandeau beckon us to do so at Zane Bennett.

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