In the wake of its economic and political plagues, Youngstown continues to enjoy a degree of cultural health. The Butler Institute of American Art, founded in 1919, has actually prospered under the visionary leadership of executive director Louis Zona during the past three decades, renovating older galleries and, in 2000, opening the new, ultra-modern Beecher Center for Arts and Technology.
The Center's Flad Gallery showcases up-to-the-minute digital and electronic media. This month, it's exhibiting works made from recycled neon advertisements and decorative strips — "found neon," as Cleveland-based artist Jeffry Chiplis calls his chosen material. Neon has been used by a number of mold-breaking modernists, while rust-belt art is often rich in found objects. But plugging vintage shards of commercial technology into a different end of the culture to play with those bits of our neglected poetry is a neat mix of originality and what the periodic table lists as one of the six "noble" gases.
Chiplis is a man with an eye for beauty in unlikely places. He's known as a world-class collector of carrot memorabilia, for example. But however you feel about carrots, slinky neon tubing is easy to love, with a nighttime beauty that evokes both the glamour of cities and the glimmering madness of chemistry. Sometimes Chiplis has liberated neon or argon-filled sections of glass tubing from abandoned gas stations or billboards, but he insists that where it comes from doesn't matter. He plucks it from the rusting city and, after some minor fiddling, plunks it back down, recontextualized along the byways of his own imagination.
At the Flad Gallery, his "Egyptian Fantasy" rebuilds the remains of several Camel cigarette advertisements, creating a cartouche-like tableau: Small blue camels trek in from the right; above them, wavy lines flow and a pyramidal yellow mirage floats near a sun-like coil — a god ambling past on neon legs. Or there's "Bonfire," where flame-like red and yellow shapes rise from a fiery tangle of phosphorous-coated glass, surrounded by real logs arranged as makeshift stools. The tone of these recontextualizations blinks between canny, neo-Dadaist punning and more contemporary, deep-pile abstraction.
Several years ago, noted art critic and scholar Thomas McEvilley became aware of Chiplis' work and penned a center spread for Art in America. Shows in prestigious New York venues ensued, but the artist, while pleased, remains undistracted by his fame. New works like "A Dull Swim" — so-called because of slight damage to the final "t" in a found-neon phrase, further juxtaposed with a man's face, a hand, a zero and a plus sign — are as crisply ambiguous as ever. Chiplis places image-laden materials at a new angle to the eye, reinventing their corner of space and time.