Artist Craig Kraft has used neon as a medium for over 35 years. Washingtonians may know him best for Vivace, a massive, colorful public-art commission whose neon lights tower out of the plaza adjacent to Shaw Neighborhood Library. In addition to the public-art commissions for which is he known, over the course of the last ten years, Kraft has also worked on several series of works sized for gallery walls. One such series centered on the theme of man’s urge to mark- which inspired Kraft to travel to prehistoric sites in France, Indonesia and Africa to see, in person, some of the oldest surviving markings made by human beings.
His current exhibition, Emergency Neon, is a continuation of his practice of creating gallery-sized work. This particular series focuses on urgent, immediate matters facing society. While the impetus for realizing Emergency Neon stemmed from Kraft’s initial reaction to a report he saw about missing people, he expanded the scope of the exhibition to include the war in Ukraine, gun violence and climate change as pressing issues or “emergencies” we should immediately confront.
An interesting aspect of this exhibition is that it was shown at two regional spaces in succession. It was first shown at Honfleur Gallery, in Historic Anacostia, from September 30-November 5, 2022. In December, the exhibition traveled to Honfleur Gallery’s satellite location at Maryland Art Place in Baltimore, Maryland where it remains through Saturday, January 28.
Inspired by a television program discussing the disappearance of Indigenous people in the US’s Southwest, Kraft sought to draw attention to the plight of minorities whose missing person reports receive far less attention than that of their white counterparts. After experimenting with a few neon missing person prototypes, Kraft now partners with DC’s Metropolitan Police Department to create missing person neon-enhanced signs.
Missing person’s reports issued by DC’s Metropolitan Police Department intentionally use bright red to draw the public’s attention to the notice. Missing person’s flyers can be seen around the city, on the news or in social media feeds. They include the name of the missing person, their picture, the date they were last seen and basic information about the person such as height, weight or eye color. Kraft reproduces actual MPD-issued missing person’s reports but increases their size and applies bright red neon lights to the title “MISSING.” Like police lights or fire alarms, the bright red color of the neon signals urgency in a manner more effective than any two-dimensional form could ever convey. There is something deeply intense in the way Kraft uses neon to enhance the missing person’s report. Its application moves well beyond neon’s aesthetic which Kraft has so deftly utilized throughout the course of his career. This is not to say that these works are visually displeasing. On the contrary, in our ever-distracted society, his use of neon in missing person announcements provides a practical way to convey an attention-grabbing message almost instantaneously.
As mentioned earlier, with the missing person’s signs as a point of departure, Kraft expanded the theme of Emergency Neon for this exhibition to include works referring to related global problems needing immediate or “emergency” attention. This is not Kraft’s first time addressing issues like these with his neon medium. For example, his sculpture The Damaged Spirit of the African Elephant ( 2018) draws attention to the illegal hunting and killing of elephants to obtain their ivory tusks which command a hefty profit on the black market.
Neon Knotted Gun’s background resembles clouds in a cool palette of whites and blues and, in its center a six-chamber pistol is prominently placed. Kraft outlined the pistol with an orange-red neon line. The neon line at the tip of the barrel is knotted, thus rendering the gun useless. Again, as in Stop Putin, the artist’s message is abundantly clear—mass shootings at schools and public places in the US require urgent intervention and must stop.
Climate Change, which was installed in DC but not in Baltimore, was a site-specific installation combining neon, found objects and sound. The found objects included debris from storms, mostly wood and metal, and dried grasses. The sounds of lightning, thunder and rain combined with white neon resembling lightning and dark pink neon reminiscent of glowing embers from a fire, serve as a reminder of extreme weather events to come, so-called super storms and extreme droughts, if we continue on the same destructive path. Kraft states that “Climate Change is undeniably the most international issue of our time” which he believes is exacerbated “by inattention and slow response.”
Stop Putin is a mounted neon sign which uses the blue and gold colors of Ukraine’s Flag to make a very clear and forceful political statement against the Russian Leader’s invasion of Ukraine. Kraft calls Russia’s invasion of its neighbor “a campaign of genocide against the Ukrainian people.”
However, Kraft does not intend to come across as a prophet of doom. Beyond the exhibition’s “emergencies,” Kraft draws his audience’s attention to the notion of hope. Kraft’s Finding Hope will constitute not one but a series of neon works with the word “Hope” written in cursive script. Kraft intends to place the neon signs, such as the one exhibited at Honfleur Gallery, around the DC metro area. According to Kraft, they “will be mounted in unlikely places, with the neon sign facing away from the viewer and onto the building’s structure.” Kraft envisions a public-interaction project whereby the “hope” signs are found and their impact discussed in public forums on social media.
While each of the works in this exhibit is visually interesting and make clear and bold statements in response to issues that do, most of the time, seem hopelessly difficult to ameliorate, each seems to point the show in its own direction. That is, all together here, as a group, their impact seems to lose energy, and only serves to underline the array of problems we face on this planet. Perhaps Kraft’s “Hope” project will serve to encourage action on any one of them.
*All quotes are taken directly from descriptions written by the artist and placed next to each work.
Update (February 1, 2023): an earlier version of the review incorrectly stated that Luis Peralta Del Valle collaborated with Craig Kraft on Neon Knotted Gun. The work, including the painted background, was done entirely by Kraft.
Emergency Neon is on view at Honfleur Gallery at Maryland Art Place located at 218 West Saratoga Street, Baltimore, MD 21201. For more information go to www.mdartplace.org/exhibitions
Honfleur Gallery is located at 1241 Good Hope Road SE, Washington DC. For more information go to www.honfleurgallerydc.com