Steve Lewis “American Neon”

Steve Lewis’ Americana and the Memory of Neon

In his first solo show with Lyons Wier Gallery in Chelsea, New York-based fine art photographer Steve Lewis looks back on the classic Americana style, and reminisces about the appeal of the road for everyday Americans in his exclusive online exhibition “American Neon”. 

Featuring 12 new photographs, all available in editions of 10, and printed uniformly at a very easy-to-install size of 24 x 36 in | 61 x 91 cm, Lewis reminds us of our own personal history with neon signs.  We’ve all had a memorable encounter with this flagrantly blinding advertising whether it was downtown, on the Vegas Strip, in the red light district of Amsterdam, or even at the corner pharmacy when picking up a prescription.

Image courtesy of Lyons Wier Gallery

The use of neon is engrained in Americana, and was also brought to the art world by the innovative Dan Flavin in the 1960s into the contemporary context, and utilized by many artists since including light and space artist James Turrell, conceptual artist Glenn Ligon, and countless 21st century artists at every art fair around the world.  

When most hear of neon signs, it brings forward thoughts of Las Vegas, their infamous Neon Museum, Antique Road Show on PBS, or even any of the numerous shows on the History Channel where they buy and sell old goods.  Lewis’ show aims to change all the misconceptions and presents these signs who have seen better days in a documentarian style, with a heavy feeling of nostalgia that seeks to make one feel comfortable with the these familiar tropes.

Image courtesy of Lyons Wier Gallery

The standout photograph in “American Neon” is clearly “Motel Pool”.  The image was taken somewhere in the plains of the United States, and depicts a dilapidated neon sign of any number of generic motels (with a pool) that you would see driving across the country when getting off any highway and driving a few miles to find a vacancy sign.   Lewis tends to reduce his backgrounds to just blue sky in many of the works, but leaves behind the full story and setting in “Motel Pool”.  It is here that the intent of the show becomes apparent.

Looking back to the classic road trip films with Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in “Easy Rider” (1969), Jack Nicholson in “Five Easy Pieces” (1970), and even what was supposed to the be dream vacation in Chevy Chase’s “National Lampoon’s Vacation” (1983), Lewis is remembering the past with rose colored glasses with the intent of bringing some much needed joy into our lives during today’s global health and economic crisis.  We all search for the meaning in everyday life and the journey should be the part we focus on, but typically we are more concerned with just getting to the destination without enjoying the ride. American car and consumer culture has gotten more and more important to us since the 1950s and 60s, and Lewis clearly understands this small yet important fact. 

Image courtesy of Lyons Wier Gallery

Americana and the social element was critical to photographer Walker Evans, and one could draw more conclusions with Lewis being the next iteration of William Eggleston, but his current show is entirely devoid of people.  Spectators will immediately feel comfortable with the artist and his work, and will subconsciously know that the neon signs were created for advertising purposes and to get you to spend money at these establishments, but the calming feeling of nostalgia and beauty are what comes through in the final exhibition.  The more time you spend with each photograph, the more that will begin to notice that each and every one of the neon signs were built by hand by Americans laboring away to earn their daily bread, furthering our positive memories of Americana when a hard day’s work meant an honest day’s pay. 

The virtual-only show takes place at and is on view until August 31st, 2020.  The show is part of a larger movement around COVID: brick and mortar galleries are taking advantage of modern technology and making sure they don’t become the next discarded neon side on the side of the highway.  Lewis’ story is clear and straightforward in the VR exhibition, and one that you should absolutely make sure you go see on your next virtual gallery tour this Saturday.