17 January 2016

Neon lights

God’s Own Junkyard has become a Walthamstow icon. This week will be the last chance to see some of their new work on show in a Soho gallery, a return to the roots of the business. Lights of Soho in Brewer Street had a sort of Chris Bracey retrospective a year ago, and now the gallery is again filled with the lurid glow of neon. The show runs until 23 January.

I first spotted the Junkyard from the Chingford train, and it was months before I got round to going back to the same spot to find out more. The view from the train reminded me of a feature I saw in Vogue magazine, a scrapyard full of rusty discarded signs, but I’ve since discovered that was the even more famous Neon Boneyard in Las Vegas. Eventually, I was cycling that way and remembered the view from the train. Could it have been Electro Signs? But no, that looked like a fairly normal sign workshop. Across the road was a corrugated iron fence and a blank wall with a modest door and - yes! - a small window with neon sign saying the magic words. I took a deep breath and walked in.

This was one of the hottest days of the summer, and the heat inside was stifling. The entrance was deceptive: inside, a small room led through to a large space with illuminated signs hanging from the metal roof trusses and covering every available bit of wall, too much to take in really. But for me, the real treasure was outside. I could see it through a glass door at the side, the piled-up rusty remains of hundreds of old signs, but would I be allowed to go out there? Chris Bracey was there, somewhat oddly dressed - I seem to remember some kind of gown over tight jeans and a pork-pie hat. He was talking to someone, but I got to ask him a bit about the place eventually. He let me spend as long as I wanted of course, and I spent half an hour outside squeezing between the piles of stuff, entire wall-sized signs and man-size letters, picking through piles of letters and reading the faded signs from long-defunct bars and clubs. There were even a couple of signs I remembered seeing in Soho and Piccadilly Circus. The signs were bold and graphically inventive, designed to be decorative as well as eye-catching. Coloured light bulbs and half-broken glass tubes, perished wiring, flaking paint on rusty metal and cloudy perspex: a completely different kind of aesthetic from the blazing bright colours inside. I meant to come back some time with a camera, but I never did. The council had already served an eviction notice, and it was a while before I discovered the new premises in Ravenswood industrial estate.

Walthamstow has two of Bracey’s artworks, the Welcome mural across the road from Blackhorse Road tube, and (my favourite) the heart-shaped Awesomestow sign in the Mall which is definitely good enough to excuse the overused made-up word. It’s good to see the family business kept going and now a (temporary) presence in Soho. The new show is called My Generation and it’s mainly new work by several members of the family, as well as tables and a bar so you can hang out and admire the atmosphere without the usual gallery hush. In fact it was rather noisy when I went, not to mention the squeals of delight from passing tourists. A few doors down there is an open door with a brightly lit staircase and a casual cardboard sign saying 'Models'. Yes, that still exists in Soho, despite gentrification. Just down the road is the famous Raymond Revue Bar sign which was originally made by Bracey senior, and rebuilt by Chris a couple of years ago.I can’t shake off a feeling that this is really an applied art, best seen in the solid context of advertising an actual business - preferably something really sleazy.