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September 24, 2003 - March 21, 2004 at Museum of Neon Art (MONA), Downtown

by Mat Gleason

An onomatopoeia of neon, Bumfuzzle is a survey show of Richard Ankrom’s work from the mid-90s to the present, including his best known piece, the short film Guerrilla Public Service.

Ankrom made his first inroads in neon sculpture. This show features his dramatic neon Guns from a series he began in 1995, electrically charged marriages of neon light and a seemingly lethal exposed electrical shock. These sculptures merge science fiction fantasy with a visceral thrill when one handles an Ankrom Gun. Pulling the trigger releases a blaze of hot red or cool blue neon along with a dancing spark of electricity emanating around the barrel. The neon in these Guns is interestingly monochromatic, corresponding perhaps with the caliber or style of the submachine gun/sculptural object in question. The Guns are mounted to hanging devices attached to the gallery’s ceiling in order to increase their mobility when being handled, adding another ominous note to the exhibition. If you prefer a safe and clean exhibition, you might better choose a shocking Damien Hirst show. There, the shark or cow are already dead. At an Ankrom show, touching the wrong part of a sculpture at the wrong time could be dangerous.

The artist's 1999 Kitsch series features Ankrom's use of plastic to cover up neon light until it is submitted to a powerful backlit effect. Luscious plastic flower petals that would tempt most artists to make decoratively marketable sculpture are here bathed in a light so intense, their gaudiness is made unbearably direct. Their visual heft is not only bracing, but, makes the ugly in the world more obvious to spot.

A late-20th century Pop series is perhaps his most conventional work, and yet, here too, his brutal conceptual sarcasm sublimates his masterful engineering. With a pretty pink field interrupted by a neon sign reading simply KILL (also the work’s title), the artist approaches Ed Ruscha territory neither respectfully nor gingerly. It is as if he has shown up to an art history assembly with a sawed-off shotgun and lots of ammo.

If there are some omissions it is lamentable, but Bumfuzzle is just a survey and not a full mid-career retrospective. In 1996, for example, Ankrom made a series of dexterous landscape paintings that balanced a pleasant popular impressionism with an American West clarity and touched on his Aberdeen, Washington roots. Painted on beige shopping bags, they had calligraphic obscenities prominently emblazoned stark center in the midst of the middle class beauty. They fit in perfectly at a SITE Gallery group show featuring Ankrom, George Herms and Karen Finley. These pieces would be critical to a complete study of the artist by virtue of their aesthetic assuredness as well being a reliable indicator of his ability to hold his own among a group of art stars.

While his blue collar fearlessness of hard work enabled him to construct and install his legendary correct and needed signage to a freeway interchange (Guerrilla Public Service, 2001-02), his disdain for the system allowed him to imagine it in the first place. To believe that the individual must go into society alone and attempt positive social change is perhaps his boldest contribution. In an era of acquiescing to the demands of a shrill two-party system running anti-congeniality contests and demanding our loyalty, Ankrom is out of step with America.

His latest piece is a constructed version of the American flag with a vast star field. The expansion he envisions is temptingly referred to in the piece's title, Of Things To Come. Whatever these things are, they better be prepared to withstand the scrutiny of Ankrom's witty analysis.

“Guerilla Public Service,"
2001, still from video.

"Altar to Miss Velvet," 2000, aluminum/
neon/plexiglas/resin, 13 x 14 x 7 1/2".

“Hatchets" (detail), 2001, resin/candies/
medication/silk flowers, 15" long.

"Exhibit O" (l.) and Exhibit P" (r.), 1997, neon/steel/acrylic/aluminu insulators/
polycarbonate battery/charger/inverter/
solar panel/fabric/rope, 36 x 20 x 16
("O") and 48 x 20 x 18" variable ("P").

"Precious", 1999, neon/metal/wood/
acrylic/resin (wall mounted), 12 x 12 x 6".