Neon sign at the Museum of Neon Art (Photo: Zemistor / creative commons)

The Museum of Neon Art in Glendale is a boutique museum with one large gallery, the guy who sold me a ticket reported.

I remembered its previous incarnation on downtown Olympic Boulevard from years ago, but things have changed since then.

The museum offers classes such as “Bend, Blow and Glow,” a free film and lecture series at the adjacent Glendale Public Library called “Jewel City Noir” and cruises. You can take the Mother’s Day Cruise, the Neon Noir Cruise, the Holiday Lights Cruise or the Award-Winning Classic Neon Cruise across Los Angeles with J. Eric Lynxwiler, author of “Signs of Life: Los Angeles is the City of Neon.”

A recent Los Angeles Public Library exhibit by the same name noted of neon’s early days: “Mile after mile, the streets of Los Angeles stretched across valleys and into the hillsides and mountains carrying neon messages for drug stores, coffee shops, doctor’s offices, car repair and juke joints into infinity. There was nothing neon couldn’t announce in bright, eye-catching colors and Los Angeles businesses that wanted to be modern and up to date, had one if not five neon signs promoting their wares.”

Even now, L.A. boasts more neon than any other city, including Las Vegas.

In his famous essay, “In Praise of Shadows,” Japanese novelist Jun'ichirō Tanizaki wrote:

“We Orientals tend to seek our satisfactions in whatever surroundings we happen to find ourselves, to content ourselves with things as they are; and so darkness causes us no discontent, we resign ourselves to it as inevitable … and there discover its own particular beauty. But the progressive Westerner is determined always to better his lot. From candle to oil lamp, oil lamp to gaslight, gaslight to electric light — his quest for a brighter light never ceases, he spares no pains to eradicate even the minutest shadow.” 

Neon gives Tanazaki’s notion the lie. Best showcased against velvet darkness, neon is all about shadow. Neon is cocktail lounges, femmes fatales, double-crosses, seduction, betrayal. Neon is shady deals struck, stars sleeping their way to the top, murder in the alley.

Maybe that’s why the museum’s current show, “The Art of Plasma” (through Sept. 3), left me a little cold 

Plasma, I learned, is a fourth state of matter, defined as “a collection of charged particles containing about an equal number of positive ions and electrons and exhibiting some properties of a gas but being different from a gas in being a good conductor of electricity and being affected by a magnetic field.” The Aurora Borealis is an example of plasma in nature. Non-nature examples can be found mounted on the wall above any sports bar.

In addition to neon, gases commonly used in neon art and plasma sculpture are nitrogen, oxygen, argon, helium, krypton and xenon.

“The Art of Plasma” featured bonsai, dancing mushrooms, sea creatures, marathon runners and brains. There was a piece called “Ken and Barbie Visit the Floating World,” and a glass, swirled with narrow stripes and filled with xenon gas, on which was perched a molded taco.

My favorite piece was unlabeled and turned out to be the work of Carl Willis, a nuclear engineer pretty much unschooled in art, according to a passing museum employee. A vertical glass tube, maybe five inches in diameter, was set in what could have been a glossy black modernist candle-holder. A narrow strand of sinuously moving pure white neon continuously swirled, ascended, coiled, spiraled and in the upper two feet dissolved into Madonna blue neon vapor. (The security guard, seeing my wonder, reported, “A kid who was in here the other day said, ‘I didn’t know you could put lightning in a bottle!’ ”)

Willis had showcased the marvel, strangeness and quixotic phenomenon of the light, not the kitschy uses to which the light, gas or plasma could be put. I’m sure the expertise and heart necessary to craft any piece of plasma art is prodigious. But left to its own devices the incandescent filament would ascend and coil and crackle into infinity, which was way more interesting to my mind than putting a taco on top of it or trapping it inside a glass-blown brain.  

When not hosting neon artists, the museum exhibits from its formidable collection of historic neon signs. You can see some of them before even entering the gallery. Outside stands a replica of a tall sign from the old Clayton Plumbers in Westwood: a faucet, in red and white, with three blue drops of water spelling out “The Leak Stops Here.”

In the lobby is the sign that graced Bakersfield’s Green Frog Market for decades: the heads of Pep Boys founders Manny, Moe and Jack, and a wall clock in ice green, scarlet and ivory neon advertising Curtis Clocks, Est. 1947. That clock spoke of guys in fedoras and dames with smart mouths and cheap perfume.

Visit the museum. Marvel at the science. Then head across the way to that Jewel Noir film series and check out more such fascinating stuff: “Gun Crazy” or “Pickup on South Street.”