In an artworld context, Bruce Nauman is synonymous with the neon sign. So much so that the American artist put off generations of artists from using neon signage, especially art students, who, most of the time, naively compete to be novel. But experience teaches the artist (if they take the time to look over their shoulder) that they can only ever aspire to be a warped mirror image of what has gone before. Today, we see neon signs utilised within an ‘art about art’ frame; as either a nostalgic turn of the hyper-modernic page or activating prop to sit the contemporary context on; or, as the cheap promise of fulfilling desire (desire = ‘lack’ in a Lacanian sense).

The ‘promise’ has always been neon’s communicative allure. But neon’s promise did not begin with Nauman’s neon sign The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths (1967), or end with Tracey Emin’s neon Hallmark moment I Promise to Love You (2010). Perhaps Nauman can be credited with shattering the illusion of neon’s promise, but the promise beckoned behind phosphor-coated, glass tubing long before the late 1960s. The neon sign was emblematic of the American dream since the ’20s. Dubbed ‘Liquid Fire’, neon signs decorated small American businesses – and still do in shops that, ironically, cannot afford a revamp with LED lighting – with the promise of the best coffee, best food, best sex show. New York’s Times Square and Las Vegas’ casinos are the epicentres of empty promises of wealth and the imagined trappings that come with Big Money. The 24/7 neon glow symbolised cheap success minus the labour. The lottery ticket, casino roulette, well-equipped sex shop, are all fast-track methods to fulfill what a person believes is the lack in their life.

Irish artist Shane McCarthy has taken it upon himself to simulate the neon sign, by first digitally drawing it, and then projecting what is an exquisitely executed simulacrum onto the gallery wall at mother’s tankstation, Dubln. It’s a wonderful visual conceit, and a weighty one at that, considering the neon elephant in the room. The question is, why has McCarthy gone to such lengths to simulate what is a wonderfully crafted object in the first place, that illuminates like no other element in daylight? This question is best answered by McCarthy’s digital drawings displayed in the gallery, which are as visually attractive as they are conceptually layered.


Liquid Fire’s Promise

Shane McCarthy
‘Words, sometimes, get in the way of meaning’

mother’s tankstation, Dublin

25 September - 2 November, 2013.


stilted sincerity (2013)

Digital drawing and wall colour (Edition of 3)

Dimensions variable

Courtesy of the artist and mother’s tankstation



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