Kevin Killen is an artist based in Downpatrick, Northern Ireland, where he translates light and movement into handmade neon forms. He recently exhibited in Endless Wander at Golden Thread Gallery, Belfast.
What originally drew you to neon as a medium, particularly in the context of travel or journeys?
I think it came from two different parts. I had looked at neon works made 20-25 years ago and was concerned that it wasn’t developing; some artists used it, but primarily as lettering and scripts. I thought it was such a seductive medium, and wondered how I could play with it.
That was like an afterthought. When studying I went from a rural village to a busy college town, and the first thing that struck me was the lights – traffic flying by and light always invading my room at night. The road network systems in England were also more developed compared to Ireland; it’s only now things are becoming similar. So I was always impressed with transportation as a technology. I was interested in the idea of a car going from point A to point B, cutting its way through the landscape.
From that, I came to work with neon – over the years I had been saving and around 4 or 5 years ago I did a course, out of curiosity, to see if it could work for me. It was a 6-week course, and I fell in love with it. With wood or stone or metal you can control it quite quickly. Neon is different – it demands such attention from you, and respect. There are maybe a dozen or so moves, and you have to get each one right or it doesn’t work.
Is time an issue when making neon as well?
It’s best practice to process a neon right after you’ve finished making it, but sometimes I let it sit for a month or two if I’m making different pieces so I can process them all together. Even if you get it lit, it won’t last forever. A good neon lasts 20 years, sometimes 40 if you’re really good at it, whilst some can last 6 months and die off.
It’s interesting that it comes with its own lifespan.
Exactly, it’s like a light bulb that needs replaced. It’s a dying art, though. I think it’s good that I have the skills now, and it’s only in the last year or two that I’ve been exhibiting the work – just to get feedback and see if people get it. I want people to get over the idea that it’s neon, because it does have a certain baggage; I’d like them to look to the mapping of landscapes or documentation of performance, or whatever the work is about.
When you were on the neon course in the USA did you find that that context was much of an influence on your practice?
It was such an intense course. It was 6 weeks, in Dallas, Texas, so I saw the Dallas art scene as well. The man who taught me was in the army for a while as a young man and so was very disciplined. You’d work maybe 8-10 hours a day, for 5 days a week. On the weekend you’d be pretty tired, but I’d write up all the notes from the previous 5 days, so I could go back on Monday morning and ask questions. I knew I only had those 6 weeks and that would be it, and it came to pass that the man who taught me, who was 83, sadly passed away the next year.
It’s only now that I’ve been talking to other people in England and Germany and America and have built up a little network of people who work with neon – these guys are in their 60s, 70s and 80s. They are the people who are willing to pass things along – I find people who are my age and do neon signage don’t really want to pass on information. They’ll make stuff for you but often be reluctant to give you any advice, but I’m happy to share things if people ask.
When work is outsourced you lose the ability to work responsively with the material – is there scope to do that with neon, to change things as you go along?
With neon you need time and space, because it’s focused and intense, and you need to have clarity of thought for long periods. You’ll be working for a week on a piece, bending and doing the twisting and turning, and at the very last bend you could mess it up, and you’ll have to scrap it and start all over again.
I do the photographic drawings of the landscape, or dance, or whatever subject I’m interested in, and then break down and deconstruct these drawings. Then I start to piece it back together again, it’s a process almost like a jigsaw puzzle. I make a steel model of the light, and then I trace that onto the paper or cloth. That gives you the map for the neon glass you need to bend. All these steps give me enough wiggle room to play, because once you set neon it’s kind of restrictive and you can’t go too crazy – you might have to start again if you go off more than 10 or 15 millimetres. I would also do car lights in pairs, so with those I try to keep them very similar. Once it’s processed and the gas is inside it, that’s it – you have to scrap it if it’s not right.
Your work takes the qualities of long exposure photography and gives light and time physicality. Does anything in particular stand out for you as you repeat the translation process in your work? Has anything changed for you as time has gone on?
This year’s been important as there were a lot of issues with my landscape work that I wasn’t happy with. How it sat, whether on the floor, or on boxes, or hanging, was something I wanted to play with. The ACES funding from ACNI gave me enough time to experiment with it for a show at Golden Thread Gallery, where there’s work both against the wall and hanging in mid air.
I also applied new technology – years ago I used to sit and map out my locations within the M1 and M2 corridor, and I would sit on bridges looking at cars at night. Nowadays, instead of sitting by myself freezing, I get someone else to drive me around, and we take photos of certain parts of Belfast. In the exhibition I use the journey from my house to the gallery, and back again.
I also use the GoPro camera, and have that hanging from the car. I like the movement of the bumps of the car and how the camera moves on its own. I like that accidental thing because neon can be quite restrictive. In the randomness you capture cars going past at different speed, ambulances going by, and you have explosions of light mixed with very quiet and subtle lights.
And then you translate them into pieces.
Yes, I don’t mess around with the photographs, I don’t edit them beyond cropping. I begin to piece together, within reason, parts that go together, such as when I’m standing at opposite ends of the bridge for two photographs. The centre point is really me, even though you don’t see me – I’ve been taking the photograph from one direction, and then the opposite direction.
Your smaller works in the drawing series appear to be quite like symbols, or abstracted shapes from patters. I would say they feel quite closely connected to how neon is used in wider culture, in signage and logos. Where do they come from?
When I broke down drawings I began to see tiny scribbles of light – I set that thought to the side, but it kept coming back to me. After I made them out of metal and hung them around the studio, I never got bored of them, so I began to play with them and put them in light. They remind me of symbols too, and the old processes of making script in neon. I love making them because they are small and simple, but have energy around them too.
Each one is a mirror image or reflection of itself. I like reflection in my work – the larger hung piece has black reflective material on the floor below it. I don’t know if my work is sculpture or painting, and I don’t really care – I just like to make it and let people decide.
So it doesn’t carry much significance for you as to how it’s defined?
Not at the minute, I just think of myself as a visual artist. There’s often pressure to have your elevator pitch and statement and CV, and some people know what their work is about and then make it, whereas I make the work and then try to figure it out.
It’s only recently, believe it or not, that I’ve looked at my work and said “that’s landscape”. I’m so busy exploring it that I’m forgetting what it’s called. But as to whether it’s painting or sculpture or drawing, I guess I would relate them more to drawings. As a child that’s how you get into art – I just take the line for a three-dimensional walk, with the help of photography. Sometimes I would use the camera as a drawing tool itself, moving it around a stable light. I suppose you could say I’m a light artist, as along with neon I’m working with LED and animation, which will maybe come together in the next couple of years.
You’ve recently installed a piece at F E McWilliam Gallery in Banbridge.
Yes, it’s a landscape piece, and again something new. Sometimes my photographic work looks like drawings, or editions, or prints, or paintings, so it’s using the idea of a light painting by putting a “canvas” of curved steel behind the neon, to reflect it. The wall is big, so it’s quite challenging to work with, and wasn’t something I could re-work like a painting. You just have to go through with it and learn lessons from it, and hope that it works.