Keith Lemley: Arboreal

Wood and neon become an unlikely combination in the artist's site-specific installation


Neon and wood aren’t the most likely of combinations, but Keith Lemley welds the two very different mediums into conversation in his latest show, “Arboreal.” For his first solo exhibition in New York, the artist—who has become known for his sculptural neon installations—has lit up the inside of Chelsea’s Mixed Greens Gallery with the geometric neon lines alone; the light is surprisingly bright but at the same time gently fills up the space.


“It’s a lot like drawing in space, is how I like to think of it,” Lemley tells CH of making and bending the neon tubing in his studio. And it was near this studio, in the West Virginia woods, that he came across a large chestnut oak tree that had submitted to its old age and fallen over. He refers to it as an “interesting tree” he had seen every day on his walks around the hill. Inspired, he decided to take a chainsaw to it and start playing around to see what would come out of it. Toward the end, Lemley wound up building an Alaskan mill to make straighter cuts.

“I kept playing with the form some, as I got a little bit better at using the chainsaw jig,” he chuckles. Lemley also notes that he was interested in creating shapes with the wood that were not complete on their own, but needed the neon to become whole, compositionally. “So that both things needed the other,” he says. “I liked how the neon kind of emphasized parts of the angularity and the different planar surfaces on [the wood].”


Lemley has experimented with merging wood and neon for previous shows like “Past Presence” at Pittsburgh Center for the Arts last year; unrefined tree root masses and organically shaped neon lines looked as if they were tangled together after a storm. In contrast, “Arboreal”—with its carefully calculated geometric cuts and angles—feels like the product of a laboratory. The neon doesn’t just highlight the wood; it symbiotically augments the wood’s space and story to form a new breed of crystalline structures. And Lemley, as artist and scientist, looks to keep experimenting further into this new territory.

Keith Lemley’s show “Arboreal” opens today, 19 February 2015 from 6-8PM and will run until 21 March 2015 at Mixed Greens Gallery in Manhattan. All artworks are available for purchase.

Installation image by Nara Shin; all other images by Etienne Frossard courtesy of Mixed Greens