In A Difficult Pair, George Vidas and Victoria Shaheen use materials associated with industrial and commercial applications that probes questions of identity, hierarchy, and material culture.

Shaheen uses commodity culture, image saturation and the history of decorative arts and design to create contemporary environments that deconstruct hierarchies, expose absurdity in social systems, and simply make viewers laugh. Vidas also uses humor to convey witty concepts and ideas through his neon work.

“Bloom,” Victoria Shaheen on Artsy.com

The opening reception for A Difficult Pair will take place on Saturday, July 21st with a Members Only viewing hour from 5-6pm followed by a Public Reception from 6-9pm during the inaugural weekend of Detroit Art Week. (DAW) is an annual self-guided tour and celebration of contemporary art and culture in Detroit. Read more about all of the programming here.

In partnership with DAW, Artsy has an exclusive preview of the exhibition currently available to view and purchase works online.

While both artists make artwork independently from one another, they also help to facilitate each others practice. George helps to provide neon materials for Victoria’s sculpture work, while she in return gives him feedback and on-going studio conversations that help shape some of his concepts.

Vidas & Shaheen in her studio. Photography credit, Bree Gant.

“We keep pretty firm creative boundaries between our work,” Victoria explains. “But when we talk about work in general it usually starts with an idea and then we trouble shoot with each other. If George is having a block conceptually I help him through, if I have a question about a technical aspect of neon, he gives me the options. Most of the time we are just friends talking about work that sometimes exchange money.”

Much of Shaheen’s artwork focuses on exploring Kitsch, Utopia, and Hierarchy.  Shaheen, who received her Masters of Fine Art in Ceramics from Cranbrook Academy of Art, defines “kitsch” as any industrial-based, casted object that references pop culture or mass production. She explains,

“[Kitsch, Utopia, and Hierarchy] work hand in hand for me. The idea of Kitsch is both utopic and dystopic. It’s highly commodified, but it’s also completely sterile in an almost poetic way. I’m interested in the way Kitsch has achieved that throughout its history.”

Artwork by Victoria Shaheen in her studio. Photography credit, Bree Gant.

Shaheen’s original plan was to attend Cranbrook for her MFA, and then move to either LA or New York. Cranbrook is located in the suburbs, and hailing from Jersey (by way of DC), she found herself itching for a city with its density. In 2011, she relocated to Detroit upon graduation. She quickly found the beauty of the city to be captivating.

“It is really an artist’s dream. The industrial convenience of having practically any material less than 30 minutes away, the family-like feel of a small town masquerading as a big city- and the space!”

Even after seven years she is still impressed with Detroit’s sprawling fields of wildflowers, “Detroit has grown on me in a way I never thought it would. It’s really a home to a lot of misfits like me. People that don’t necessarily fit into one box. Because of that it’s a great place to make art. The creative energy is just pumping through the city. It always has been.”

“The Rat Race,” 2018, by George Vidas.

George Vidas is an artist and neon bender best known for his artisanal sign shop, Signifier Signs. Born in North Carolina, he spent a decade on the Oregon coast before moving to upstate New York, where he learned how to make neon while earning a B.F.A. at Alfred University.  Shortly before graduating, he bought a shop’s worth of used neon equipment and has spent the intervening years practicing the craft.

He has lived and worked in Detroit for eight years now. “When I got out of art school in the winter of 2010, everywhere looked pretty miserable, but I had a few good friends who had just moved [to Detroit],” he explains. “I have a lot of love and respect for the resilience of this city.”

“It’s hard to see or point a finger at or draw a circle around, but in this city are a lot of strong, interconnected communities supporting each other outside conventional or established channels.”

A lucky move for the Detroit: his commercial neon work can now be seen on various storefront and windows throughout the city, as many of the top businesses consider him the ‘go-to guy’ for neon work including Supino Pizza, Bevlove, Detroit’s Buhl Bar, Honest John’s and more.

Read on for our interview with Victoria Shaheen and George Vidas below.

Shaheen working in her studio. Photography credit, Bree Gant.

What medium are you interested in working with the most currently? 

Victoria Shaheen: I think mediums are a funny thing. I think people often times use them as a crutch or a way to categorize and understand a work; I try not to do that.

I’m an Artist and pieces are always calling for different mediums or materials. For instance, right now I’m using aquarium rocks in my work. I’m not even sure if that would qualify as a medium, as much as it does this random material. Most people would say my preferred medium is clay, (and I do love clay) but my clay process isn’t traditional in the way it would be typically formed, fired, and glazed.

I’ll often coat the pieces in rubber to create texture or foil to create a certain finish. My materials tend to be based on the narrative instead of practicality. So, if I want to talk about the utopia of the domestic interior, I’ll choose something that would provoke that conversation.

Vidas in his studio. Photography credit, Bree Gant.

George Vidas: I’m generally interested in ideas, and the media follow the ideas. The one exception to this might be kites, because they’re fun to fly and it’s cool as hell to tape some sticks to a piece of a trash bag and get it to go hundreds of feet into the air. I tend to make things in neon for the same reason little boys in the United States tend to pretend everything is a gun — when all you have is a neon shop, everything looks like a window.

What inspires you?  

VS: I pull a lot of inspiration from landscape, actually. The serenity of the ocean, the abstract forms of a mountain range, the aggressive energy of a crammed highway, or the bright lights of a liquor store. I honestly get inspiration from really random places.

GV: Inspiration is one of those words or concepts (like “having a muse”) that get hyped up until the original meaning is buried. I count as inspiration any idea that passes thru my head. Sometimes I’m inspired to do things that are bitter or cruel or foolish. I write down the ideas that are compelling or persistent, and then chip away at them when I have time or energy. Some ideas have hung on the wall as patterns for years, others go from fantasy to object in a few days or weeks.

Who are influential artists in your life?  

VS: I remember going to the Noah Purifoy Museum in inland California and being blown away. I get a lot of inspiration from Post-WWII avant-garde. Specifically, the Gutai that formed in Japan and the work of  Sonja Ferlov Mancoba that worked out of the Cobra group. I saw Sadamasa Motonaga’s (Gutai) paintings for the first time at the Dallas Art Museum and they truly changed my world. Other artists that have greatly influenced my work are Peter Shire, Marisa Merz, Ettore Sottsass, and Yayoi Kusamsa, of course!

GV: Trying to answer this without it being my ballot for the popularity contest: I’m drawn to people who have clear analysis of the situations and conditions around them. Sometimes they work as artists, but just as often they’re bartenders or gardeners.

Shaheen working in her studio. Photography credit, Bree Gant.

What is the most important concept or theme that your work addresses?   

VS: It’s probably a three-way tie between Kitsch, Utopia, and Hierarchy. I’m always trying to disrupt the formula of kitsch, shift its variables, and see what I come up with.

GV: My work in this show is about decisions. How did I decide to do this? Why? Why now? How would my life have been different if I had done this years ago when I made a different choice in a similar situation? [Themes] definitely evolve over time; “The only lasting truth is Change.”

Do you have a favorite color? How does color play a role in your work?

VS: I love color in general! Bright colors, pastels, muted tones I work with it all. My favorite thing though is how a color can change when it is placed next to another color or when a certain tone of light is reflected or absorbed.

GV: In a neon context, I like clear red neon, because it’s a very basic and blunt way of making light from electricity. Those tubes aren’t much more than a glass tube filled with pure neon gas, with a bit of carefully shaped metal at each end, hooked up to high voltage. A lot of work goes into making it stable and safe, but the core elements are very simple.

Photography credit, Bree Gant.

The color doesn’t fade or change over time. In 20 or 30 years, when the neon gas inside is absorbed into the metal at each end, any neon shop in the world can cut the ends off, put new ones on, re-fill it with neon, and light it up in its original color with a simple and non-toxic process. Coincidentally, it’s a wavelength of light that is particularly visible through fog and clouds, so there’s a strong history of using it as a beacon on radio towers, airports, etc.

What about your creative process have you found to be the most successful for you?

VS: My quickest pieces are usually my best pieces. I think a lot of the time my brain gets in its own way.

GV: I try to pay attention to when I’m tired or hungry, and take naps or eat. I’ve learned that if I try to force my way through any frustration I’ll just break the glass or bend it wrong, amplifying the frustration.

Photography credit, Bree Gant.

How does working with neon affect your work?  

VS: What is challenging about neon for me is my work is always very fluid and intuitive. Since the neon is outsourced, it’s hard to communicate what is actually is that I want the fabricator to make. For instance, everyone has a different definition of what a “gestural squiggle” is.

As I mentioned before I like to work with kitsch. Neon has been classified as Kitsch for a long time. It’s cheap, common, and often really campy. It fits into the equation of the kitschy-not-kitschy-art-object perfectly. It also adds a level of functionality to these pieces in an ambiguous way. Could they be lamps for aliens inspired by Memphis design? Yes they can!

Photography credit, Bree Gant.

GV: I started making art in neon as a way to practice in between commercial jobs. The folder of art patterns/sketchs on my computer is still called “practice.”

It’s challenging in that neon is hard to rush, requires some planning, and is fragile.

What is the concept behind your upcoming exhibition, “A Difficult Pair?”

VS: The exhibition title is multi-faceted. On one hand, it can simply be interpreted as the relationship between the ceramic material and neon- clay being rigid when fired, and glass being flexible yet also fragile. But both materials have similar properties and similar histories. The history exposes another ‘difficult pair,’ which is the arts and it’s relation to industries. Art is dependent on industrial processes in so many ways, but it negates the idea of The Commercial at its core, so it’s dependent but contradictory.

Vidas working with neon. Photography credit, Bree Gant.

Another example of this pairing can be found in our work is Personal Narrative vs. Gaze of the Viewer. Both of our bodies of work are autobiographic and personal, but we obscure the work to an extent that narrative is almost impossible to truly “get.” And- of course, there is finally the simple aspect of George and I’s ever-clashing personalities.

GV: As Vicki mentioned, the title, “A Difficult Pair” was initially a joke about how ceramics and neon are a tricky combination — ceramic objects can scratch glass, which will make it break. But, the phrase also describes us: a loving and supportive friendship of meals and music and bickering and teasing.

Photography credit, Bree Gant.

A Difficult Pair opens to the public on Saturday, July 21st from 6-7 9PM during Detroit Art Week. The exhibition is on view through August 18th.