Light is no stranger to the art world. From old masters like Johannes Vermeer, who captured the purest moments of sunlight on his subjects, to contemporary artists such as James Terrell, who is adept at creating tranquil moments between light and solid form, light has always been a prime focus of art. However, although many artists have captured and interpreted this element through their respective mediums, it wasn’t until the late 1800’s that light was truly captured by Thomas Edison. Since then, working with the wonders of science, creatives and inventors alike have challenged their boundaries to travel beyond industry and science and into their own imaginations. As with any craft and its intended purpose, artists twist and mold light to form new craft and new forms in which to express.

As a child, I recall a symphony of neon signs buzzing through city windows welcoming visitors to sample the storefronts wares. I can’t help but being reminded of these first experiences of light and art: Through the clever bending of glass tubes, a spoon suddenly dances within a glowing hot soup bowl; a Tiger waves its hand and flicks its tail to ensure you will have a good time while sipping your drink.

Light Charmer is the newest exhibition of neon and plasma in action opening this Friday at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft, and it challenges the restrictions of the practice.

In the exhibition, HCCC’s curator Kathryn Hall brings together some of the most spectacular glass and light works celebrating color, movement and optical performance. It it not always an easy challenge to bridge the gap between craft and contemporary art. While celebrating tradition and its origins, how does one present, say the creation of glass, beyond its roots and into a fresh and thought-provoking platform? Light Charmer manages to do just that through its group show, which features some of the most enchanting artists from around the country, from coast to coast.

Kate Hush, “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair,”2015 .8mm Italian glass tubing filled with argon and neon gas, animated 120v power supplies. 50 x 40 x 2.5 inches. Photo by Shahryar Kashani.

Unlike many other art forms, neon remains semi-grounded by its science; it’s tricky to break beyond its limitations.

“Through experimentation with blown-glass forms, unique gas compositions, and the interplay of light and sound, these artists demonstrate new and exciting potential for a material that has been in a state of commercial decline,” says Hall. “The installation was as enthralling to watch as much as seeing the final pieces. I’m truly excited for this exhibition and its production and glad to have had the chance to bring it to Houston.”

With a bold new world of new media and augmented reality, oftentimes materials such as glass — and especially neon — are left in the dark (no pun intended). This might be partially due to the fact that glass and blown glass are difficult mediums to work with because glass is so fragile and expensive to create. These restrictions, however, limit not a single one of artists in the new exhibition. HCCC’s curatorial mission of pushing harder beyond the walls of craft is ever evident in the new show.

In the exhibition, artists James Akers and Lily Reeves unite sculpture and performance in “Neon Sword Fight,” their electrified collaborative work. The piece works off the idea of art needing to be — not just seen — but also experienced. In their performance, Reeves and Akers dance around each other with glowing neon sabers in a duel of light and dark. Tapping into the inner sci-fi geek within us all, the performance invokes Star Wars jedi, evil advisories, and moves the works off a pedestal and into the 4D playing field. The two artist work off their separate strengths and come together with a collective eye for the elaborate.

Eric Franklin, “Skull 12,”2015. Borosilicate glass, neon, acrylic, electronics. 12 x 12 x 12 inches. Photo by artist.

Erik Franklin is a luminous Portland-based glass sculptor who takes part in the exhibition. The artist is known for playing off the activity of gas and electricity through the creation of beautiful and vivid anatomy-based plasma works. Franklin’s genius is through how he transcends the normal constraints of neon through his glowing works, which are active to the human touch. The gases hum within the glass in his pieces and create a ballet of electricity and flickering micro-explosions within a human skull or irradiated rib cage as they are engaged. I have spent much time in the Pacific Northwest and visited many glass studios and fabrication warehouses, and I know that it takes a great deal of talent to move past the craft of glass and neon. Franklin has bottled his own individual vibrancy, it seems.

As a throwback to a bygone era of the neon industry, which has since made way to digital formats and LED advertisements, Light Charmer is a salute to the past and neon’s provocative presence in the contemporary world. Paying homage to artists such as Dan Flavin and Bruce Nauman and their widely exhibited neon pieces, these artists at HCCC bring forth an exhilarating body of work. Capturing not only tradition and craft, these artist tackle contemporary issues as well as political and charged movements in change.

There is an impressive range of talents within this exhibition, which Features works by artists James Akers, Sarah Blood, Michael Flechtner, Eric Franklin, Mundy Hepburn, Kate Hush, Hannah Kirkpatrick, Lily Reeves, Aaron Ristau and Ashlin Williamson. 

In spite of the continuous growing pains many non-profit institutions often face, the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft has managed to come a long way in the past decade. Through a variety of changing visions, the organization has been presenting an ever-evolving set of exhibitions that have successfully captured the attention of the contemporary art appreciator as well as the lovers of craft. This exhibition, curated by Kathryn Hall, is no different.

Light Charmer opens this Friday, Feb. 9 at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft (4848 Main Street) and is sure to transfix its audience. The show runs through May 13.