NOMA’s “Until Today” Exhibit Is An Eye-Catching Encapsulation of the Modern World

Original photos by Gabrielle Chulick

Circle Portal A & B (2015)
Rectangle Diptych (2013)

Art museums have progressively tapped into the stylistic nature of younger generations through a wide variety of Instagram-worthy moments. The rise of social media has paradoxically turned these exhibits into a new kind of display: those that can be seen online through aesthetically pleasing photos of the artist’s work. Keith Sonnier’s art is a prime example of creating a link between modern art and this craze found in youth culture.

Partially ashamed, I will admit that I am one of these individuals. However, after examining the New Orleans Museum of Art’s new exhibit, I found that my own flair for technology was one of the significant themes encapsulated in this gallery.

Starting March 15th, NOMA opened its first comprehensive museum survey for Keith Sonnier titled, “Until Today.” Sonnier is a pioneering figure of conceptual, post-minimal, video and performance art who made his debut in the late 1960s. He is also one of the first artists to incorporate artificial light into sculpture. His light sculptures come in the form of colorful neon displays. This may explain why millennials have found a perfect excuse to document the exhibit through their smartphones.

Like many visitors, Maddy Kelly — a UNO studio art student — was immediately struck by the exhibit’s vibrancy. She argues, however, that Sonnier’s art has much more significance than just existing as a simple neon light display: “I obviously [heard] ‘neon light exhibit’ and got excited. But once I was actually seeing the exhibit, the thing that excited me the most was not the lights, but seeing how they were set up, what shape they were bent into, and the color combinations.”

Nevertheless, Sonnier’s installations go beyond aesthetic appeal and serve as a commentary on cultural phenomena and political issues. According to NOMA’s website, the works in this gallery “explore the relationship between agriculture, landscape, and technology, reflecting on the various ways that contemporary culture relates to the environment.”

Catahoula (1994)
War of the Worlds (2004)

While the majority of Sonnier’s pieces were created throughout the latter part of the 20th century, there is a striking parallel between the exhibit’s political themes and modern day issues — more specifically, the impact of technology and the growing destruction of the environment. Some of his installations combine everyday materials drawn from landscape — even trash and debris — with the use of electric light, radio, and sound. As a Louisiana native, Sonnier also embedded elements that he observed from a New Orleans garden into a few of his works.

In a particular area of “Until Today,” colorful neon lights hang on the exhibit’s ceiling. Old-fashioned radios are strung along the walls as sound is emitted. Noises from the radios can be interpreted as broadcast news transmissions. One might observe that Sonnier uses these two elements to portray the progressive nature of technology and its effect on human connection.

Passage Azur (2018)

Although Sonnier could be commenting on the positive aspects of technology, his infatuation with nature seemingly reverses this ideology. “Sitting Abri,” one of the pieces displayed in the gallery, underscores the artist’s relationship to the environment in regard to technology. The piece’s label states that “it takes the form of a hunter’s deer blind rendered in aluminum, an elevated stand used by deer hunters to survey long distances and communicate with others before the advent of satellites, cell phones, and the internet.”

Maia Van Zandt, a film and studio art graduate, expressed her views of Sonnier’s political themes. “In my eyes, the exhibit portrays the growing pains that our world is feeling as technological advances begin to outpace our advances in environmental preservation. I think the millennial generation can especially connect with this exhibit because it brings to light both our appreciation of technology as well as the mounting issues we’re facing due to decades of irresponsible use.”

To a group of millennials, the critical nature of these installations can create an eye-opening experience packed with irony. After snapping several pictures on my iPhone, I took a step back and actually examined the art in front of me. “Until Today” rightfully touched me with a tinge of guilt. It also inspired me to reexamine the complications that come with the progression of the digital age.

“Until Today” will remain on exhibit at NOMA until June 2nd. Louisiana residents are admitted into the museum for free on Wednesdays.


Keith Sonnier: Until Today NOMA Exhibit

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