NO matter how mainstream art becomes, there will always be something slightly off-putting about museums. Think about it. These are places where not-to-be touched objects - some ancient, some new, each priceless - hang on walls or perch behind glass protected by guards and deciphered for often befuddled citizens by tour guides. Well, there's at least one museum that simply refuses to fit that bill. A place where you're invited to push buttons, activate gadgets, get close and personal to art that looks as if it might be more comfortable in an amusement park.
Your first clue that you are in for something quite apart from the standard hallowed-halls museum experience comes at the entrance to the Museum of Neon Art in Los Angeles, known by the acronym MONA (just like Da Vinci's Renaissance femme). Above the door is a silk screen and neon sculpture of art history's famous first lady, her once-demure smile shamelessly animated by fluorescent-colored accents that squiggle and jump. They give ``La Gioconda'' a campy naughtiness that's as refreshing as it is iconoclastic.
Press the doorbell and instead of the refined buzzer you get a loud funhouse whistle - so much for pomp and decorum.
``A critic once called this the Disneyland of fine art. I loved the idea,'' says Lili Lakich, MONA's director and co-founder. A neon artist for 22 years, Lakich has had her poetic and funny figurative neon art shown all over the United States and Europe, and her 60-piece traveling retrospective opened the new Touko Contemporary Art Museum in Tokyo in October.
Along with Richard Jenkins, Lakich founded MONA - the world's only neon museum - in 1981, donating her own large studio in downtown Los Angeles to see a longtime dream materialize. ``There's a conspicuous resistance to and absence of forums for this sort of work,'' she says. ``If I'd waited for standard funding channels, MONA would probably not have left the drawing table.''
The museum was born of Lakich's force of will and her commitment to a nearly lost medium that has lacked serious consideration as fine art because of longtime associations with ``tacky'' ads twinkling over '50s drive-in diners and desert casinos.
The road from kitsch to sculpture has been a rocky one. Neon was invented by Georges Claude, a Frenchman who by 1910 had developed the technology sufficiently to go public with a few barbershop signs. In 1923, neon hit the US when a keen-eyed car salesman named Earl Anthony left Paris with two flickering Packard ads that had motorists lined up in front of his Los Angeles showroom.
By the '20s and '30s industrial neon littered the American landscape as huge corporations and mom 'n pop stores alike used the magical-looking colored tubes to hawk their wares.
In its heyday, 5,000 master glass benders crafted elaborate, amazingly complex designs that included everything from giant dancing girls to bubbly champagne spouting out of a bottle.
After World War II new, shiny acrylic plastic signs seemed modern, and ``dated'' neon signs were dismantled and trashed. In the '60s the New York artist Chryssa - neon art's reigning matriarch - made a bid for neon as fine art. But the revival she spearheaded was short lived.
L.A.'s MONA is dedicated to keeping neon alive, a trend that Lakich feels is finally gaining momentum. ``Neon has invaded the '80s,'' she says. ``You see it in TV game shows, commercials, and rock videos. It's used by serious professionals as interior d'ecor, as architectural accent, and as fine art sculpture.
``Neon art has special exhibition requirements,'' she continues. ``First, this work takes months and months to produce. In addition to the design of imagery, neon artists must also work out all the circuitry. From there the pieces go to glass benders, who shape tubing and fill it with the color-emitting gases to match artists' specifications.
``Because the process is so long and involved, neon artists make few pieces,'' Lakich explains. ``It's art you need to live with for a while. The three-week gallery exhibit doesn't do it justice. And because of an unspoken resistance to the medium, most museums are reluctant to include neon art in their permanent collections. The Museum of Neon Art is here to fill that gap.''
Although neon is MONA's central concern, it is not the only one. ``We focus on art that shares the common bonds of electricity and motion,'' Lakich says. ``We also show a lot of kinetic art, another field rather neglected by standard art channels. We called it a `neon' museum because the word looms large in everyday American experience. It's almost a cultural icon like Europe's castles. Besides, the reference to Mona Lisa was just too good to pass up.''
The museum actively crusades to salvage, restore, and display vintage neon signs, but is equally committed to exhibiting contemporary neon/kinetic art. Over the years MONA has displayed works tapping every sensibility from perverse humor to political satire to pristine geometry and amazing optical effects.
The spirit of tradition-crashing iconoclasts who never used neon lurks here, from Marcel Duchamp's techno-erotic ``Glass Box'' and spinning bicycle wheel to Robert Rauschenberg's combines, to the entire Pop posture and a trace of performance art as well.
The real common denominator seems to be the whimsical charm of art that irreverently glows, creeps, howls, and flickers in space. Highlights from MONA's changing exhibitions have included David Quick's tongue-in-cheek homage to Americana. The piece involved a little mechanized wood box housing the Pillsbury Doughboy chained to a '50s kitchen, complete with miniature Campbell's soup cans and cupboard doors opening and closing automatically. A button activated by viewers brought out a giant hand that poked the giggling TV creature.
Michael Flechner's ``Pop Sharks'' featured huge, bright orange neon sharks popping out of a neon toaster in a left-handed spoof of our instant food (i.e., Pop Tarts) and instant gratification culture.
If MONA's an idea that's finally come of age, what does Lakich see for the museum's future? ``Well, we've really outgrown this space,'' she notes. ``We keep rescuing or acquiring major vintage neon pieces for our collection, but they're just too large to exhibit here. So they end up in storage.
``We just got the famous sign from Steele's Motel here in the [San Fernando] Valley,'' she says. ``A 20-foot neon woman swimmer doing an actual somersault pike dive into a neon pool with palms surrounding her and water splashing. It's quite remarkable, but it's taller than our ceilings. We have our feelers out for a new space. I firmly believe that the '80s are the decade for neon, and anything is possible.''