Neon signs evoke magic and sin—peep shows and diners, pink-elephant car washes, tawdry all-night activities, and bad spelling like ‘donuts’ and ‘tonite’—commerce posing as art and shamelessly vamping itself to catch the eye of passers-by. Since the ’60s, Bruce Nauman has been exploiting the hypnotic allure of these humming, glowing lights to grab people’s attention with messages and images that are sometimes disturbing, sometimes poetically hopeful, cogent puns and playful anagrams often used for social commentary. Mean Clown plays on the ambivalence of the not-so-harmless—nor funny—character. (Note: Some of his sculptures include clown naughty bits!) His Vices and Virtues was installed on the University of California, San Diego, campus in 1988, the year I graduated, alternating and combining pairs of the seven virtues and vices: charity/sloth, faith/lust, etc. Flashing high from the roofline of an engineering building like a silent preacher, it eerily reminded some of us where we might be headed on our way between sheltered higher education and the Real World, and some of the choices we would have to make. “Elusive Signs: Bruce Nauman Works with Light,” on tour from the Milwaukee Art Museum, sets the Henry aglow this spring with a neon retrospective of the 66-year-old artist’s work. Henry Art Gallery, UW campus, 15th Avenue Northeast and Northeast 41st Street, 543-2280, www.henryart.org. Feb 10–May 6.
Since 1998, Suyama Space in Belltown has been offering innovative contemporary artists a large space in the middle of the Suyama, Peterson, and Deguchi architecture offices to do with what they will for three months at a time. Local art fans may not be that aware of this unconventional gallery off the First Thursday loop, but artists relish working in the raw, high-beamed room. Curator Beth Sellars has overseen an array of big, bold installations by local and national artists from Trimpin to Lead Pencil Studio. This one promises to offer weird and tactile fascination. Caroline Lathan-Stiefel, a Philadelphia artist who entangles entire rooms with grade-school art-class detritus—pipe cleaners, yarn, pins, bits of fabric—will make her West Coast debut with Patch, a site-specific installation that will hang from the ceiling and drip from the walls. Suyama Space, 2324 Second Ave., 256-0809, www.suyamapetersondeguchi.com/art. Opening reception with the artist: 5–7 p.m. Fri., May 4. Ends Aug. 3.
Seattle Art Museum continues its expansive burst with a 35-hour-long grand opening of its new space in the modern glass and steel Washington Mutual building. High ceilings and reinforced walls will allow for large installations, and they’ll get a workout with Cai Guo-Qiang’s Inopportune: Stage I—spinning and laser-spouting Ford Tauruses that will greet visitors in the 5,000 square-foot Brotman Forum. Details of other inaugural exhibits haven’t been made available yet, but SAM’s square footage will nearly double and two floors will be free to the public. The new museum blends into the urban landscape like New York’s former MoMA—not much to look at from the outside, but a deliciously vast and well-lit interior. First Avenue and Union Street, 654-3100, www.seattleartmuseum.org. Sat., May 5–Sun., May 6.
This local artist uses an architect’s precision to draft romantically imprecise visions of loss, escape, fleeting attachment, and broken engineering. His poetic mixed-media canvases incorporate collage techniques with an assortment of tactile elements—charcoal, acrylic, graphite, rivets, found objects, and varnish—to great effect. They are filled with windblown propellers, wounded wings, blurry whirs of mechanics accomplishing nothing, fancies that never take flight, precarious structures on the verge of collapse, with titles to match—Drift, High Tide. In Proposal for a Monument for a Lost Cause, a tattered wind sock ripples over two red-and- yellow-striped disembodied airplane wings—or is it a crippled propeller?—the rest of the aircraft a mere charcoal shadow, the entire paper drawing tethered to a wood canvas, as fragile as the unnamed cause it attempts to represent. Francine Seders Gallery, 6701 Greenwood Ave. N., 782-0355, www.sedersgallery.com. May 18–June 24.