Artist's Statement: Meryl Pataky on the Joy and Wonder of Neon
It was Renoir who said that a work of art "must seize upon you, wrap you up in itself, and carry you away." Interviews with artists should have a similar effect. With "Artist's Statement," our interview series with prominent and upcoming visual artists in San Francisco, SF Weekly speaks to the people behind the art you see in the galleries, in the museums, and in the streets.
Neon is the art form of choice for thousands of theaters, bars, liquor stores, and other establishments that want to grab people's attention. Neon is also Meryl Pataky's choice, and in her hands, sculpture emerges that is engaging, thought-provoking, and often funny. Pataky's latest work is on exhibit at the Shooting Gallery Project Space (886 Geary) through August 10. Pataky, 30, spoke to SF Weekly about the joy she gets from working with gases and molding them into artful tubes that take on every shape imaginable.
Photo by Derek Macario Courtesy of White Walls Gallery
Q: Neon is gas, and your studio is almost like a laboratory, with everything from tubes to a kind of flame-thrower that heats the tubing. What's the most unexpected thing you've encountered in your studio?
A: There's never really much of a change in what the gas looks like. And there is very strict temperature and pressures and gauges that you go through during the process of filling a tube. The one thing that changes is the process of bending. Sometimes, something weird will happen with the glass. And the cork that is supposed to plug it from the air going in will not be there, and maybe you'll mess up the bend and have to start over. Or a random crack will happen from thermal shock while you're bending, and it will mess it up, and you'll have to start that part of the bend over. There's only been a couple of times where I experienced something that was strange and unexpected. I think it was the result of dirty glass; I had a very awesome happy accident happen, where throughout the same unit, the color of the gas changed and continued to stay that way until today. I think there were certain impurities in the glass. Argon gas is normally like a dim purple cover, and there are spots in a couple of the units that turn white. People think I did it on purpose.
Q: Knowing your interests and your background, it's easy to imagine you wanting to be a mad scientist rather than an artist. It seems your art gives you the best of both worlds.
A: That's really well said, actually. I totally agree with that. I was always more into science classes at school than I was much else. I enjoyed writing and literature, but science was where it was at for me. More recently in the last four years, I've become an intense hobbyist for reading different books and finding out as much as I can on the cosmos, and watching how the universe works, and I really enjoy feeling like I'm a part of something bigger. Learning about the cultural implications of the elements, and how people have used them for religious reasons - I try to find out as much as I can about the materials that I use, being that they do come from the universe, and employ those inherent meanings from those cultural histories into my current work. So a mad scientist? For sure.
Q: Beyond the science, there's also a level of humor with your work. Does your art bring out your humor, or are you naturally that way?
Courtesy of Meryl Pataky Dunce Love
A: I feel like I'm not sitting around and saying, "This work needs to be funny." I wouldn't say I'm the most humorous person in real life. It depends on my mood. There are a lot of times where it's either something that someone said to me, or an experience that I've had, or it's that light bulb above my head, where I say, "Of course." It's an, "Oh, duh" moment where the idea enters my head. It's kind of weird.
Q: As an example, your work called "Dunce Love" is funny. In fact, it screams funny.
A: Yeah, it's pretty funny. They're very confused with one another. (Laughs.) That actually has to be credited to an experience in my life, with a new love type of thing, where everyone around you realizes that you have the hots for one another, and you're always the last people to find out that you like each other, and there's all this weird confusion.
Q: You mix neon and greenery together in your new exhibit, as in the work called In the Forest Silent Whatever Happens Happens.
Photo by Derek Macario In the Forest Silent Whatever Happens Happens
A: This is a relatively new thing that I'm exploring. I've frequently done pieces of neon that go directly on the wall. And they are what they are. And they don't really have any other mixed-media elements to them. I need to remind myself constantly: Neon is very much a part of my life right now, and it's getting me attention and commissions and things like that. I want to remind myself and others that I'm a multi-disciplined artist. And I work with a lot of materials - basically, anything that I can get my hands on. The nature and forest stuff comes from a want to juxtapose neon, which is an everyday permanent fixture in our lives that we don't even think about most of the time, and put it into an environment that makes it really vulnerable and fragile. I want to continue doing that idea of doing neon in the outdoors and neon in the streets. And where I can do prints of my neon work, instead of just having this fragile piece of art that needs to be seen in a gallery; instead, maybe have more of a viral image and maybe that's a little more sellable for people to own.
When White Walls approached me, I wanted to push the boundaries of what materials I use and get a little bit girly with it. So I used roses and things like that. I wasn't willing to compromise of whether they were real or fake. I wanted them to be real because I think it wouldn't have been the same if they were silk roses or something like that. So, yeah, I had something like 600 roses.
Q: Is there anything else you can tell us about In the Forest Silent Whatever Happens Happens?
A: I have to give credit to an experience in my life and maybe even someone who may have inspired that. A lot of the times, my work has a personal narrative. There are definitely people in the past and the present inspiring my work, either in situations that have happened, or things that they say. And that's one of them. I'll just leave it at that. The neon is on a living wall at the gallery that waters itself. It's completely sustainable. That's a collaboration with David Brenner from Habitat Horticulture. We stored it at my studio for a month and kept it alive and then installed it in the gallery. It's a 4-by-8 living wall. I'm still shocked it was pulled off.