By Pablo Nukaya-Petralia
In mid-July, as a one-woman show by neon artist Leticia Maldonado was set to open at Bermudez Projects gallery in Cypress Park, word went out that Maldonado’s next stop would be the Museum of Neon Art (MONA) in Glendale, where she will have her first ever museum solo exhibition in September 2022.
For Maldonado, who grew up in Las Vegas and now lives in Highland Park, such high-profile exposure comes after years of growing stature as a “bender.” That’s the term for artists who use fire to bend glass tubes into shapes which are purified, filled with neon or other gasses and then plugged in, creating light, color and, in Maldonado’s case, art.
“To now be having a show at MONA feels really special to me, not only because it’s a museum, but because it’s a meeting place and a gathering place for the whole community of benders,” said Maldonado in a recent conversation with the Boulevard Sentinel.
In that community, Maldonado is especially known for her exquisite bending and thoughtful imagery. Neon tubing is usually eight to 15 millimeters in diameter; Maldonado will go as low as five millimeters. The smaller the tubes, the more intricate the shapes. In her artwork, Maldonado literally sheds light on her experiences and memories, her loves and losses, her imagination and interactions.
“Autonoetic,” the title of Maldonado’s current exhibit at Bermudez Projects, captures the transformation of the personal into glass, light and art. It refers to “autonoetic consciousness,” a psychology term describing a self-awareness of one’s own existence in time and the related ability to reexperience what is past in different places and times.
“I started thinking about emotional time travel, and how certain objects can evoke that trip, and how certain objects can hold the energy of a memory,” said Maldonado. “I started thinking of this idea, and then I realized there was like, an actual word for it.”
One of the neon sculptures in Autonoetic, entitled “Just a Moment, Let Me Get My Things,” consists of a glowing trumpet set in a worn suitcase that also holds a tucked plexiglass note and dried flowers. The sculpture is a self-portrait, said Maldonado. The translucent note, for instance, hearkens back to the handwritten notes her boyfriend would leave for her.
Each of the other sculptures in Autonoetic are also repositories of Maldonado’s unique memories.
A winding bougainvillea branch entitled “Highland Park, CA” is one of three sculptures that evoke places meaningful to Maldonado. Another trio of sculptures in the exhibit shows Plexiglass-feathered starling birds becoming progressively more transparent until finally one can see the delicate glass bones and innards of the final starling.
Though she has been drawn to neon since her childhood in Las Vegas, Maldonado initially studied figure drawing, first at the Art Institute of Las Vegas and later, at the Los Angeles Academy of Figurative Art. Her intent was to illustrate comic books, in part because she did not realize she could make a career out of neon art.
But the attraction to neon was deep, dating back to drives in the dark with her stepfather to pick up her mother, a show girl turned cocktail server on the Vegas Strip.
In 2013, Maldonado took introductory courses with neon artist Lili Lakich, followed by further training with neon artist Michael Flechtner, who remains in awe of her abilities. “Leticia is fearless,” Flechtner said via email. “She has been able to do incredibly tricky and tight neon work, in small diameter glass … that makes me nervous just thinking about what it takes to maintain that much control.”
In addition to her current solo exhibition at Bermudez Projects gallery, Maldonado has exhibited in recent years in many group shows. Some highlights include exhibitions in cities across the United States as part of the collective, She Bends: Womxn in Neon, and a pathbreaking exhibition curated in the U.S. and displayed at five museums in Mexico entitled “Construyendo Puentes/Building Bridges, Chicano/Mexican Art from L.A. to Mexico.” In 2020, Maldonado was the subject of an award-winning documentary, “Las Vegas Bender,” and recently, she was featured in “Rule the Quiet,” a commercial for Quietcomfort earbuds in which she is shown soundlessly at work, bending glass into art.
“Leticia Maldonado: Autonoetic” will be on display at Bermudez Projects gallery in Cypress Park through August 28. After that, Maldonado said she will turn her focus to the 2022 solo museum show at MONA.
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