“I’m not painting a painting that’s finished and then putting neon on it. I’m painting with the expectation this element will be added.” — Mary Weatherford
In Mary Weatherford’s Arcadia , a gestural mass of deep, moody pigment is bisected by a diagonal slash of bright red neon. Upon closer examination, the neon rod is not straight, but subtly curved, with the expressive energy of a hand-drawn line. Splashes of teal, lime, deep indigo, and red pool and run across the canvas surface like a watercolour painting, capturing a gestural sense of energy reminiscent of the Abstract expressionists and Color Field painters. The title of the painting, Arcadia, references the Renaissance concept of a pastoral utopia, an idyllic, unspoiled wilderness where man and nature coexist in peace.
Born in California and based in Los Angeles, Weatherford graduated with a BA from Princeton University in 1984, before pursuing an MFA at Bard College, graduating in 2006. She began incorporating neon rods into her work in 2012, after an artist’s residency in Bakersfield, California, sparked a fascination with the coloured fluorescent lights of old factories and restaurants. When asked about how the neon element entered into her work, Weatherford responded: “I was driving around Bakersfield trying to think about the paintings for a show there. I saw old neon signs for restaurants and factories that hadn’t been taken down, mainly the Padre Hotel. As I was driving around, the sun started setting and I saw the colour of the sky. Who doesn’t love the sight of the sky turning colour and the lights of the city coming on at night? That moment. So I decided to paint the experience of driving around Bakersfield.”
Materials are key to Weatherford’s work. The linen used in her paintings are woven at a specific mill in Belgium, selected for its rough texture and ability to hold colour. The white gesso ground is combined with powdered chalk from Bologna and marble dust that not only gives a bit of sparkle, but creates a smooth, matte whiteness calibrated to a specific degree of absorbency, so that the Flashe paint – a water-based medium known for its vibrant colour and matte finish – adheres to the canvas surface in a manner resembling watercolour on paper. Weatherford paints on unstretched canvases laid on the floor, applying and mixing colour in layers, and allowing pools of pigment to dry with different textures and thicknesses. After the canvas is stretched, the neon rods are added as a last step, dramatically altering the appearance of the final work.
In 2014, the year that Arcadia was completed, one of her neon rod paintings was featured in MoMA’s survey exhibition “Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World”. When asked about her approach to colour in her paintings, Weatherford states, “…Colour is relative. Even the white you put down counts. Every colour hits an emotional note. But the note, the colour with another colour next to it, then makes a chord. So you can have a major chord or a minor chord or a seventh chord or—you know the famous Leonard Cohen song, “Hallelujah”? I think everybody loves that so much because he’s demonstrating what going through that chord progression feels like. So when I’m making a painting, what I’m doing is demonstrating what the chord progression feels like.”
Weatherford’s paintings, always executed on a large scale, capture a sense of intense emotional drama that is heightened by the interjection of neon. In Arcadia , the bright red light cast by the diagonal stroke punctuates the predominantly cool-toned composition, connecting the lighter, gestural upper left with the dark, weighty mass in the lower right. Everything is intentionally left visible, from the dangling electrical cords to the white transformer box. Rather than hide them from view, Weatherford allows all the technical elements of her painting to be seen, challenging the purist conception of what it means to be a contemporary painter.