It’s completely understandable if you didn’t get out to see What You Mean to Me, the recent show by the Neon Museum’s 2020 National Artist in Residence Victor Ehikhamenor. (It’s safe to assume that you had other things on your mind.) But you’ve got another opportunity to experience it, albeit virtually: The Museum has posted an interactive, 360-degree tour of Ehikhamenor’s show to its website, direct from its Ne10 Studio.
Having viewed the show two different ways now—in person and in my browser (though I’m curious to see how it looks through a VR headset, another available option)—I can say that the show has an emotional impact even at a distance. Ehikhamenor, a Nigerian-American artist whose creativity isn’t confined to a single medium, faced several unusual challenges in mounting What You Mean to Me—not least of which was coming back to Las Vegas, a city he has visited often and knows well, and finding nearly all of its familiar elements closed up or locked down. In an interview during the show’s closing reception, Ehikhamenor said that a coronavirus-stricken Vegas was just one element casting a shadow across the art he made.
“I have family friends here; I’ve come here every single year since 2014. So, it’s like a second city for me. I have never seen it this chill, you know?” Ehikhamenor says. “When you go to places like this or New York, you realize how much [COVID-19] has pushed things back. … I feel sorry for the businesses, and I feel sorry for the workers, but we can’t talk too much about the businesses when there’s also a human carnage, you understand? People are really suffering.”
Ehikhamenor felt great empathy both for those suffering from COVID-19 and for the businesses hobbled by the necessary shutdowns needed to control the virus. At the same time, there’s a deeply polarized political fight going on, one he felt he needed to acknowledge through the work.
“I came right on time to be able to vote—flew from Nigeria [and] got to Maryland, because that’s home for me. So, I was able to quickly vote, but I’ve never seen it that charged up. … People were using people. I mean, you could be a Republican, could be Black, could be white—but I realized that the entire country had been manipulated.”
Immediately, he began work on “Red State, Blue State, Black State, ETC.” A loosely-draped, painted canvas that suggests the American flag and several African flags, covered in intricate black swirls; two stark lines of red and blue neon jut upward into the piece, angled toward each other as if in conflict. It depicts America’s internecine struggle with an empathy similar to that he feels for our city’s virus-stricken and endangered businesses. And it does so through the use of neon elements, a medium he confesses he’s come to love.
“I’m very much a tactile guy. … I needed to explore the medium, and I couldn’t have done that from afar,” he says. The Neon Museum residency, he says, was a perfect opportunity to “embed” himself in neon; he drew pieces that were fabricated by local firm Hartlauer Signs, a collaboration he describes as “pure human creativity” and “a lot of fun.” That joy of discovery finds perfect expression in the all-neon piece “Harvesting Light and Fireflies With My Brother,” a jigsaw puzzle-like panel of colorful neon shapes that begs to be replicated much, much larger. And considering the artist’s newfound enthusiasm, it might well be.
“This is my first neon piece, but it won’t be my last,” Ehikhamenor says, grinning.
See the virtual tour of What You Mean to Me at neonmuseum.org.