Jason Pickleman remembers spending countless hours of his childhood peering into the backyard of his next-door neighbor, an avid art collector known to fill his lavish Hinsdale yard with neon lights.
“My teenage bedroom overlooked a zoo of neon,” says the full-time artist and graphic designer, now based in Chicago. “It was fascinating and illuminating and exotic, and it was everything I wanted art to be. I remember thinking that I wanted to fill my life with colored light.”
For 30 years, he has done just that.
It is that colored light that Pickleman will now have on display at the Neon and Light Museum, an immersive popup experience containing more than 60 professional neon and light-based sculptures by distinguished artists from across the country, all housed within 7,000 square feet of exhibit space in the heart of River North.
“Chicago has some of the most talented neon artists in the country,” Ken Saunders, the Neon and Light Museum’s director and curator, says of the wide range of artists participating in the event, which begins an eight-week run Thursday. “And even though we do have these well-known artists all gathered here, the fact is that the neon is the celebrity because it’s taken on a second life. Now, it represents a positive vibe, when it once was simply a utilitarian, functional tool that people used to sell things.”
Pickleman will have 14 works on display, utilizing 68-inch vertical tubes of neon to create an array of thought-provoking images and messages.
“When I make my own artwork, I like to allow communication to be a little slippery,” says Pickleman, who says he long has been intrigued by the intersection between commercial and fine art. “I like ambiguity to enter my artwork. I have found that, by turning words upside-down, flopping them backwards, rotating them, mirroring them — all of which is easy to do with neon — I’m able to talk about language and communication in a multitude of ways.”
Making the Neon and Light Museum experience even more unusual is that people are encouraged to immerse themselves within the work, with each move essentially creating a new visualization.
“It’s so cool to see the light art reflect on the faces and the bodies of the people within the artwork,” says Pickleman, whose list of graphic design clients has ranged from The Wit to Millennium Park to Skinny Pop Popcorn. “The great thing about neon is that the artwork doesn’t stop on the wall. It continues into the space.”
“There are a million cool selfie opportunities, too,” says Saunders, adding that many of those who’ve seen the show appreciate the chance to reserve a time slot, especially amid the pandemic.
While the Neon and Light Museum might attract its share of social media influencers looking to immerse themselves in “no-filter needed” art works, the exhibit also aims to attract masses of pandemic-weary art lovers desperate for light in their lives.
“There is a hopeful feeling here,” Pickleman says of the light-filled space. “It gives you a moment of levity in a way. Often, museums are very somber. But the Neon and Light Museum is going to feel alive while still feeling very Zen. I truly believe this is the next evolution of cultural engagement. If we can attract new audiences to a popup art experience such as this, chances are their next visit is going to be the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago or the Art Institute of Chicago.”
Pickleman is especially looking forward to greeting one person to the Neon and Light Museum.
“Yes, he’s coming,” Pickleman says of the news that his next-door neighbor of old plans to visit the exhibit to see some of the work his backyard partly inspired. “It will take everything in me not to cry when I see him walk through those doors.”
Tricia Despres is a freelance writer.