Light Show – Double Scoop
IIf cash is at the heart of Nevada’s casino culture, neon is its soul. The buzzing, multi-colored lights could once be found across the state, adorning everything from the glitzy Las Vegas Strip to slot machines in mining outposts. However, the artistic medium – and that is exactly what it is – that has been indicative of nightlife culture since its inception is in danger of disappearing. Real neon is fragile, expensive and time-consuming to produce and repair – qualities that have seen it fall out of favor with business owners who once commissioned it for their building facades or bars.
Jeff Johnson came to Reno to learn the craft of producing neon in 1994, and after nearly 30 years of practice, he’s one of the few neon crafters keeping the business alive. From his studio in northwest Reno, he creates sculptures and signage using traditional glass bending and neon gas and has featured his work in exhibits across the state. On Thursday, July 28, Johnson will host a reception for his first solo exhibition in years at the Savage Mystic Gallery at 538 S. Virginia St. He talked to us about his philosophy of art, the inspirations for his show, and the future of his profession.
How would you describe your art and how long have you been practicing it?
This is brand new apps for neon, [that’s] what sets me apart. And I’ve been doing it since 1994, when I came to town to learn how to do it.
Have you found someone else doing the same thing as you, or are you still really the only neon practitioner around?
As far as I know, there are only three [including me]. My old boss has a guy working for him now.
Can you tell me a bit about the new show? What happened there and what can people expect if they want to come check it out?
I had some great new examples of neon art that no one had done before, and some of them are designed to be outdoors. … I’m one of the only people who can use neon to be subtle.
When you say you have things that no one has ever seen before for this show, can you give me specific examples?
Well, they are not, for example, they are not designed to make you cross the street and buy something. They are meant to decorate your garden at night when it’s hot, too hot to sleep, and you’re sitting around, enjoying your garden. It is a decoration specifically. … And, yes, I didn’t copy anyone.
So it’s real sculpture as opposed to advertising?
They are light sculptures, that is exactly what they are. With external transformers.
So, how long have you been preparing for this new show?
Well, like everyone else, I was thrilled to be socially distant. So basically I worked on it in one form or another for at least three years.
So you were working there before the pandemic, but maybe you took the time during the isolation to buckle up and do it?
No, it was just because the guy who’s the curator [Pan Pantoja] to Savage Mystic told me to do it. He wanted me to do a show at his house. … It’s a commissioned performance.
[laughs] You had very little to say on the matter, it seems.
Were all these pieces specially designed for this show? You’re not going to show old pieces?
There’s nothing here in this new show that hasn’t been shown anywhere before. It is called “Sagebrush Diogenes Club”. The Diogenes Club was a London club of which Sherlock Holmes’ brother, Mycroft, was a member.
They sat in this nice club, and you weren’t allowed to talk or disturb anyone. You could just come and have your adult drink or whatever and read a periodical, for example, and be left alone. There were other secret things they did too, but it’s still mostly secret.
Is this the kind of atmosphere you hope to recreate at the show?
No, my other idea for the show was “Keep Reno Bland”. So it was better than that, and that’s why I ran with it. I keep it simple. And this city is watered down, not just watered down, but deceived. There are so many people in this town who never care about what happened five years ago because they were nowhere near. So either way, it’s time for something new.
Is this your first solo exhibition?
Oh no, I somehow collaborated with at least a thousand people in this town during my time doing neon here.
If this town is somehow watered down, as you say, are you trying to introduce anyone to this classic Reno art form? Who is the show for?
I mostly try to pique the interest of people who want things coming out in their backyard. I hope someone buys these because my yard is already full of neon art.
Can I find out a bit more about how Pan “commanded” you, as you said, to come here and put on this show? What was your relationship with Pan like?
Oh, well Pan is one of the number one artists left in this town. Like, I don’t know if he was here 20 years ago, but at least 15. He’s been a major player. In some ways, there would be no underground art of any kind. There would only be government funded art if it weren’t for Pan. Oh wait, I should add the government or Burning Man.
You’re one of the few people left in this town who even knows how to put neon lights together the classic way. Are you really interested in passing the torch? What are your plans for your artistic career in the future?
Well, from what the Museum of Neon Art in Los Angeles shows on its learning site, it’s like young women in their 20s are really intrigued by this. I haven’t seen that many guys. And I know a local girl. She walked away, so she could learn more and then come back. But she learned in Seattle, and then she came here. Otherwise, I’ve never had anyone come to my house twice to train, except once. And then he stopped coming because he became a cop. I was a little insulted by that. [laughs] Just kidding, he would be one of the good cops.
If people see neon in Midtown, anything that’s been made in the last few years, is there a good chance you’ve done it?
Only the cool and unique.
Cover photo: Kris Vagner
This article was supported by a grant from the City of Reno and the National Endowment for the Arts.