“I’ve never wanted to make paintings about Sunset Boulevard or the center of Los Angeles. I was more interested in the edges of Los Angeles.” – Mary Weatherford
The neon light tubes in Mary Weatherford’s Pico Rivera provide light from within this monumental composition. Upon closer inspection, the reactive vibrations in the blue and yellow tubes of Pico Rivera stream back and forth. We see the frenzy of gaseous particles colliding in a contained, city-like atmosphere. As the artist has stated: “When I had the idea about the lights two years ago, I realized that it was a way to make a painting about the city and about the 20th century. It’s electricity. It’s Modernism” (quoted by M. Williams, “Mary Weatherford: L.A. Confidential,” ArtinAmerica.com, 2014, accessed 8 October, 2018).
Weatherford first involved neon in her practice in 2012, during a visiting professorship in Bakersfield. Her visit to the family owned business Center Neon catalyzed what would become her signature and highly acclaimed neon paintings. Two neon paintings she created that year, Ruby I and Ruby II (Thrifty Mart) refer to the extremely rare neon that the shop’s patriarch showcased for her: a remnant of a Thrifty Mart neon sign kept in their warehouse, which in addition to its ruby glass, was rumored to be infused with gold (K. Siegel, “Into the Nightlife,” Mary Weatherford: The Neon Paintings, Claremont, 2016, p. 11).
Since her 2012 Bakersfield series, Weatherford has depicted hybrids of landscape and autobiographical abstractions representative of her experiences in places such as Manhattan, Coney Island, Los Angeles and Red Hook, Brooklyn. Though the artist worked in New York intermittently through her career, the Southern California landscapes, to which Pico Rivera belongs, remain the most effective and personal. Weatherford’s childhood in Ojai prior to attending Princeton seems to compare well with Joan Didion’s descriptions of California. Her dispersions of marigold, sepia and turquoise evoke the Santa Ana winds, adobe houses, and dry Southern Californian vegetation. The artist’s sister Margaret wrote a fictionalized account of their Southwest upbringing, describing a “sun that blazed down on us and back up from the crinkled turquoise of the reservoir… the wind was still blowing hot, and when we got out of the car the whole state stretched out before us like a white bone” (M. Weatherford, “Green Car, Nightfall,” The Paris Review, Nov. 14 2011). Though varied in expression, the two sisters’ experiences and memory of Southern California converge.
The locales Weatherford has chosen for her neon paintings series would not distinguish themselves as obvious inspirations for her resulting Romantic hybrids of abstracted landscape and history painting. Titled after the gateway city 11 miles outside of Los Angeles, Pico Rivera engages in with the launching yellow and blue neon light tubes overlaid onto numerous sheaths of earthy and oceanic tones reminiscent of Morris Louis’ veils. The lights complement the warm and cool tones of the composition, allowing washes of marigolds, wide strokes of eggplant and swaths of teal to dive and resurface in the viewer’s perception. In Pico Rivera, Weatherford has conveyed the atmosphere of Southern California at high noon and dusk simultaneously.
Weatherford said regarding her Los Angeles paintings: “the thing that unites these as ‘Los Angeles’ paintings is the light–not the neons, but in the painting. Los Angeles used to have ‘smog days,’ when you didn’t have to go to school. I was aware of living in a smog basin from the time I was little” (M. Williams, op. cit.). This statement about Pico Rivera reminds of the urban legend that higher smog levels can intensify the vibrancy of sunsets. This contradiction of industrialization functioning as both beautification and destruction simultaneously translates to Pico Rivera – the hardware of the neon glass tubes puncture through the canvas, both interrupting yet uniting the composition.
Inspired in part by Eva Hesse, the white conducting wires for the neon tubes cascade down the front of the canvases and dribble onto the floor where they are connected to a weighty transformer. The artist notes, “If the wires ran behind the painting, you’d have a beer sign, not a painting. Nothing is hidden” (quoted in C. Miranda, “With bold brush strokes and luminous neon, L.A painter Mary Weatherford comes into her own,” Los Angeles Times, 20 March 2017, accessed 8 October 2017). To compare her use of neon with the likes of Bruce Nauman’s neon signs would be incorrect; the arcing blue and yellow neon tubes of Pico Rivera are considered a special brushstroke of the painting. Weatherford’s training in sculpture has certainly distinguished her contributions to exploring the sublime in contemporary painting, and the artist’s first retrospective is planned to travel to the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston in 2020.