When works of art can be soothing for both the mind and the spirit

Neon is the light of commercial signs and supermarkets. It captures one’s attention longer than other lighting but is also energy-efficient. Ever since the late 1960s and the emergence of lighting as art, neon has also become a primary tool in the creation of art. Around 40 years ago, Stephen Antonakos was one of the first artists to pioneer its use and since then has been one of the few to handle neon uninterruptedly with the diversity and imagination that one finds in his work to this day. A Greek-born artist who moved to New York in his early childhood in the early 1930s, Antonakos discovered neon in bustling Manhattan as a young artist. He became enthralled with its linear fluidity, infinite range of color and fluorescent glow. Ignoring neon’s commercial associations, Antonakos singled out the aesthetic properties of neon and used it for its formal properties. He became interested in how neon could structure space and how its immaterial glow could translate into shape and form. Instead of neon’s high-tech flamboyance, Antonakos picked out its more unusual qualities and actually went in the opposite direction, finding in neon’s pulsating radiance a capacity to create surroundings of meditation and spirituality. It is, therefore, no surprise that in many of his works Antonakos combined neon with religious symbols to create an effect that seems contradictory but is also harmonious. This melding of the modern with the traditional is one of the first impressions that strikes the viewer at «Darkness and Light,» Stephen Antonakos’s one-man show at the Astrolavos Gallery, featuring works from different periods. The predominant theme here, perhaps more than neon, is the motif of the cross. There are crosses everywhere, either as details to or part of assemblages or as self-standing constructions, from the anchored and austere-looking metal large «Cross,» to «The Cross, The World,» a wooden cross on a metal pedestal, or «Cross of the Small Blue Chapel,» which is a gold-leaf, wall-mounted cross backlit with red neon. Crosses are sometimes combined with constructions that resemble iconostases: The most distinctive example is «Voices,» a wooden construction on the walls of which the artist has hung a weird collection of crosses, some humorous, others impious but all crosses that the artist asked friends of his to make. Like the crosses, the iconostases and the titles of some works named after saints evoke religious symbolism. However, this is unintended. Antonakos is not interested in the particulars of religious dogma or practice but in the broader idea of spirituality and how architecture, shape and form can communicate a feeling of mental calm. What makes crosses appealing to Antonakos is their bold and basic shape and not their religious connotations. The modern, pure style that Antonakos uses helps remove the religious symbolism from his works and suggests the artist’s interest in investing his works with a global resonance. Indeed, one of the first major «chapels» that Antonakos made was in Nagoya, Japan. This was a 10-foot-high and 25-foot-square, all-white space in which Antonakos placed four of his gold and silver leaf panels backlit by neon. This was one of the first meditation rooms that Antonakos made in 1989, and was soon followed by other installations and complete «chapels,» meant as spaces of peace and contemplation to be physically entered by the viewer. Some were built in the studio and others were in situ installations; among the latter is the installation in the ruined fortress of Saint George in Rhodes and in the San Antonio Public Library, both from the early 1990s. These are just a fraction of the countless public works that Antonakos has made worldwide. His neon installation for Tachikawa, Japan, is one of the largest. Each work is an attempt to redefine architecture and the urban environment, primarily through the use of neon lighting. His signature neon installations are mounted on buildings of different architectural styles all over the world, from the postmodern Stadtsparkasse in Cologne to the gothic-like look of the Chrysler Museum in Virginia. Public works are a large part of Antonakos’s work which one unfortunately misses at a gallery exhibition. But aspects of it also overlap into the smaller works. In «Light,» for example, the wooden object that contains a cross resembles a miniature model of an architectural construction. Indeed, what is interesting about the Athens exhibition is that it contains many of the different strands that run through Antonakos’s work, thus offering a representative picture of his art. Some works, for example, remind the viewer of Antonakos’s works from the late 1950s and early ’60s that were made of objects he found. There is also «Bone Box,» a work that seems akin to Antonakos’s conceptual series «Packages» from the early 1970s, a body of work that evolved out of an exchange of correspondence between Antonakos and his friends. The exhibition also includes a specimen of Antonakos’s panels, essentially a painted surface backlit with neon which the artist started producing in the mid-1980s. They are works that show his interest in juxtaposing painterly surfaces against the glow of neon. Another interesting aspect of the exhibition is the way that the works have blended with the gallery’s interior architecture. Antonakos has said he was happy to find a gallery lacking a white cube aesthetic and said that he liked the way that the gallery’s unusual layout gave the viewer some privacy when looking at the works. The installation does not have the same encompassing and quiet atmosphere of Antonakos’s «chapels» but the idea of art providing a calming, meditative experience is in both cases the underlying objective. «Darkness and Light» at the Astrolavos Gallery, 11 Xanthippou, tel 210.729.4342, to March 1.