Q+Art: Dani Bonnet’s Neon Signs Cheekily Skewer Traditional American Values
When a timeworn toolbox showed up on her doorstep, Dani Bonnet’s life changed. The box contained her grandfather’s neon bending equipment, a relic from his Vegas-based neon sign repair shop. While her grandparents set up camp in Sin City, LA-based Bonnet makes neon signage that nods to the glitz, glamour, and bright lights of Tinsel Town.
Though she started her career in biochemistry, Bonnet couldn’t help remembering her grandparents’ trade fondly. After moving to LA post-graduation, the burgeoning artist grew nostalgic for glowing lights and quickly got to work with her vintage neon tools.
Today, Bonnet’s work mixes symbolism with an impudent nod toward traditional American values. In a 2021 collaboration with VANS, Bonnet combines the familiar bald eagle with wads of cash. “[The sign] speaks to my views on money, power, and freedom in America,” she explains on her website. Elsewhere, Bonnet has been busy curating shows on Sunset Strip and Gallery Row for her fellow neon artists.
Bonnet’s recent group exhibition, OFF//ON, attempts to answer a challenging question: how do we flip our creativity on after months of sputtering through a pandemic blackout? The show, filled with winking cowboys, messages of peace, and selections from Bonnet’s Electric Beasts series, finds hope in even the darkest corners of American life.
In Today’s Q+Art Interview…
Dani Bonnet discusses finding balance with money, the cyclical relevance of neon art, and the danger of falling for clickbait galleries.
Which books, art-related or otherwise, belong on every artist’s shelf?
Danielle Bonnet: Adam Granted, Originals. I find it nice to hear the take of what makes a creative genius broken down by an extremely analytical person far removed from the subject.
Which cultural concepts, themes, or philosophies inform your work?
DB: Duality, environmentalism, spiritualism, and sometimes I make pretty things with no other intent than to just be pretty.
If you could have dinner with any artist, living or dead, who would it be?
DB: Nikola Tesla—an electric artist, really. Since he never wrote down any of his notes, I'd like to chat with him on some of his breakthroughs.
What do you wish you learned in art school but weren’t taught?
DB: I am still actively enrolled in my own art school on subjects and topics I am curious on; would recommend everyone to do the same.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received? What’s the worst?
DB: You don't remember in history people who were naturally good at things and then stopped after a couple creations. You remember the people who are persistent and push on for so many hours to learn and grow in things that are initially tough and may always be. You just have to keep showing up. (From my mentor Juan Ortega.)
What's your biggest barrier to being an artist?
DB: Time. By far. Us sneaky artists always find a way to get more of it though when we find something or a concept we are passionate about.
How do you maintain a work/life balance?
DB: I don't right now. I've been putting in 18/hr work days pretty consistently for the past three years.
What does generosity mean to you as an artist?
DB: Doing projects for people for free or reduced rates just because you know it will be priceless to them. Sometimes I feel like money for certain works doesn't translate as a fair transaction.
What does success mean to you as an artist?
DB: This is something I find that is always shifting for me in meaning. At this current stage it would be to be given more opportunities to create my own concept and ideas rather than to execute other people's in the neon medium. But I can't complain; in this phase I do get to work greatly on my skill!
What role does the artist have in society?
DB: Art to me equals time given towards a medium to express an emotion. The artists of society are the emotional curators of beauty and symbolism.
If you had to pick one, would you rather be a historically significant or commercially successful artist? Why?
DB: Historically significant. Commercially successful is just so drab. Why not aim to move mountains culturally with your work—what a dream.
What role should money play in the art world?
DB: Enough to sustain the artist’s lifestyle but not get to their head. If artists were set up to be able to create the day away and still be able take care of their necessities without working double/triple jobs, can you just imagine what sort of utopia that would be?
What’s your relationship with money?
DB: Money is evil. Money is my lover. Money stabs me in the back. Money takes me home safely at night. Money is the reason I can create whatever dream pops into my head. Money is the reason I don't create often enough. Money has made me happy. Money has made me sad.
How do you deal with the ups and downs of the market?
DB: Neon has a cyclical relevance to it. I'm lucky to have not experienced a down cycle yet. But also very fearful for when it does return.
Have you ever turned down an opportunity? Why?
DB: Yes. I can tell the client from the get-go is going to have too high of standards that no human being can meet. Or is the type of person to take advantage and manipulate kindness in their favor. You must never take jobs from people like this, they will make you momentarily hate creating with your entire being.
What are you working on that you’re excited about right now?
DB: A life cycle detailed in bubbles.
What do you do to maintain your mental health?
DB: I go for a daily neighborhood hike. I pet my cats and kiss my girlfriend.
What do you dislike about the art world? How would you change it if you could?
DB: I think generationally we have gone through a great step forward where everyone can now "present" their art to a wide audience through social media without much financial or labor excursion. Now we must continue to make this more fair for all artists. As it exists currently there is a tricky amount of skills you must have to be good at this, which eliminates certain people and certain mediums who don't translate in this niche way. A level playing field for creatives seems like a wonderful end goal to strive for in the next decade.
How does your geographical location affect your work and/or success?
DB: I think I get a lot more clients and opportunities because of my current location. Being in one of the biggest metropolitan areas is surely a blessing in this regard. Especially since my works are a nightmare to ship generally. But man, there are always a million things to do here; it becomes a challenge to properly spend your time balanced in a healthy way.
Please share with us a real-life art-world horror story.
DB: Lately I have seen clickbait emails from galleries charging $5,000 or so to represent you. They disguise themselves as being quite distinguished. The email they send you describing your work is clearly a damn mad lib that they are just popping in and out with different words to pertain to you and your work in a cookie cutter response that they are trying to make you feel is genuine. Nothing about it is genuine; it's a mass email money grab. Artists beware.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. All photos published with permission of the artist.
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