CMNW Council

At Hallie Ford, William Volkersz’ neon art shines bright

The Dutch-born American artist's retrospective at the Salem museum showcases neon not as a gaudy symbol of advertising but as a key element of art for art's sake.

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Willem Volkersz, “Follow Your Bliss,” 1994/2015. Neon, wood, acrylic/latex paint, found objects; 103 x 133 x 47 1/2 inches. Collection of the artist.
Willem Volkersz, “Follow Your Bliss,” 1994/2015. Neon, wood, acrylic/latex paint, found objects; 103 x 133 x 47 1/2 inches. Collection of the artist.

Visitors to the Hallie Ford Museum of Art in Salem are accustomed to seeing art there using all manner of media — visual art ingredients like paints and charcoal, paper and canvas, varieties of stone and metal, glass, textiles, etc. 

But they’re unlikely to have seen artwork that employs the unique ingredient on display in the museum’s largest space: Neon.

The arrival of William Volkersz: The View From Here at the Hallie Ford marks the third stop on a tour that started in South Dakota late in 2021. The 25-year retrospective exhibition of the internationally-known mixed media artist was set in motion by the South Dakota Art Museum and the Missoula Art Museum, in Montana. It will be on display in the Salem museum’s Melvin Henderson-Rubio Gallery through March 30, and then move on to the Yellowstone Art Museum in Billings, Montana, from late April through June 2024.

Volkersz’s artistry is a melting pot of photography, painting, and found objects that come together in a unique expression of Americana—although, as the commentary available in the exhibition catalog makes clear, it’s more complicated than that.

Willem Volkersz, “Breakfast, May 5, 1945,” 1996. Wood, tile, paint, found objects; 19.5 x 19.5 x 26.5 inches. Collection of the artist.
Willem Volkersz, “Breakfast, May 5, 1945,” 1996. Wood, tile, paint, found objects; 19.5 x 19.5 x 26.5 inches. Collection of the artist.
Willem Volkersz, “Yellowstone Wildlife,” 2008. Neon, wood, acrylic/latex paint, found objects; 73 x 47 x 9 inches. Collection of the artist.
Willem Volkersz, “Yellowstone Wildlife,” 2008. Neon, wood, acrylic/latex paint, found objects; 73 x 47 x 9 inches. Collection of the artist.

Born in 1939 in the Netherlands, Volkersz lived through the Nazi occupation there and the aftermath of World War II before immigrating to Seattle with his family in 1953. But while that piece of his story is essential to understanding his work, Brandon Reintjes, the Missoula Art Museum’s senior curator, argues in a catalog essay that “it is Vokersz’s role as a folk art collector and patron of self-taught artists that [has] impacted his aesthetic development more than anything else.”

While maintaining a strong Dutch identity—he served in the Dutch army from 1960 to 1962—Volkersz’ travels around the United States nurtured a deep love for Americana that is evident in his work. The timing of those travels, recorded exhaustively with his camera, gave him a closeup view of roadside culture that was thick with neon.

Neon is an invisible gas that was discovered by two British chemists in 1898, a moment that coincided with the explosive growth of American advertising. The proliferation of neon signage in postwar America served as a signature for modernity and prosperity, prompting pop artist Andy Warhol to call it “one of the great modern things.” Volkersz, another catalog essayist notes, “was astonished by the amount of advertising found throughout” Seattle when he arrived. 

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But even though neon signage later came to be associated with both mindless sprawl and the “seedy” parts of town—think New York City’s Times Square in the 1970s—the crucial fact is that neon was primarily a tool for commercial purposes; aesthetics put in the service of profit. That’s how most Americans have seen neon, an invisible gas rendered visible with electricity.

Willem Volkersz, “Vincent in Paris,” 2013. Neon, wood, acrylic/latex paint, found objects; 23 x 25 x 11 inches. Collection of the artist.
Willem Volkersz, “Vincent in Paris,” 2013. Neon, wood, acrylic/latex paint, found objects; 23 x 25 x 11 inches. Collection of the artist.

Volkersz was among the pioneers to incorporate neon into art for art’s sake—literally “drawing” with light. The Hallie Ford exhibition affords an opportunity to see neon used in a new way, rendering images taken from the artist’s own photographs and paired with painting and found objects. Suitcases, an object symbolizing the immigrant experience, appear often in Volkersz’s work, most of which is “life-size.” 

Because a primary ingredient of the pieces is a chemical concoction commonly associated with advertising, the effect is pleasantly disorienting. Here, neon is being used not to tell or exhort, but to show, and the viewer will find much to see. The exhibit features 26 works, the subject matter of which ranges from the artist’s childhood in Holland during World War II and his immigration to the U.S. to his many travels and experiences here since then. 

Willem Volkersz, “When I Was a Boy,” 2008. Neon, wood, acrylic/latex paint, found object; 96 x 128 x 25 inches. Collection of the artist.
Willem Volkersz, “When I Was a Boy,” 2008. Neon, wood, acrylic/latex paint, found object; 96 x 128 x 25 inches. Collection of the artist.

The catalog is an essential component of the show. It is available in the museum store for $20 through the exhibition’s run, and along with the piece by Reintjes, it includes essays by South Dakota Art Museum Interim Director and Exhibitions Curator Jodi Lundgren, the Portland Art Museum’s curator emeritus of Northwest Art, Bonnie Laing-Malcolmson, and artist and former Yellowstone Art Museum curator Gordon McConnell. 

Collectively, the essays present a picture of both Volkersz’ life and how his artistry fits into and alongside the aesthetic traditions that percolated in mid-20th century America. 

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William Volkersz: The View From Here

  • Where: The Hallie Ford Museum of Art, 700 State Street, on the corner of State and Cottage Streets in downtown Salem.
  • When: Through March 30, 2024. Hours are noon-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays.
  • Admission: $8 general; $5 seniors; children and students admitted free.
  • Free docent-guided tour: 12:30 p.m. March 26.
  • More information: 503-370-6855.
  • Also showing: Singular Visions: Self-Taught Artists from the Permanent Collection is on view through April 20 in the museum’s upstairs Study Gallery and Print Study Center. ArtsWatch will feature a report on this show in the coming weeks.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

David Bates is an Oregon journalist with more than 20 years as a
newspaper editor and reporter in the Willamette Valley, covering
virtually every topic imaginable and with a strong background in
arts/culture journalism. He has lived in Yamhill County since 1996 and
is working as a freelance writer. He has a long history of involvement in
the theater arts, acting and on occasion directing for Gallery Players
of Oregon and other area theaters. You can also find him on
Substack, where he writes about art and culture at Artlandia.

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