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Nick Vaughn and Jake Margolin
McClain Gallery, Houston, Texas
Review by Donna Tennant

Nick Vaughn and Jake Margolin, “Sheep Camp,” 2022, charcoal power and wind on paper, 37 1/2 x 61 1/2”


Continuing through July 29, 2023


Nick Vaughan and Jake Margolin are “social cartographers.” Their expansive “50 States Project” maps and animates lost and obscured LGBTQ+ political and social histories and narratives through an aesthetic gaze. The scope of the project is monumental, with a developing series of 50 discrete installations (six have been realized so far), giving life to lost queer places and stories in each of the 50 states. Vaughn and Margolin’s collaborative, multi-disciplinary practice involves deep archival research and results in work that incorporates visual media, lectures, and performance.


The current exhibition reflects the breadth of their vision through thus-far realized work with the presentation of three projects carefully curated from the greater endeavor. Three large “wind drawings” on opposing walls appear as subtle outlines of images blown away by wind and time. Their appearance echoes the images’ own frailty and ephemerality, wind and time blowing them into the forgotten. In fact, the process that created them is metaphorically similar. After research, Vaughan and Margolin traveled to the sites of former gay bars and other LGBTQ+-related locations and photographed them. The photographs were then laser-cut, and charcoal powder was stenciled onto large sheets of paper. An air compressor blew away the excess powder, leaving a ghostly image of the original photograph.


In “The Chandelier Club,” the image of a defunct gay club appears to be blowing away, with the carbon clinging to the paper under the assault of time and wind. The artists describe the wind drawings as “the remaining records of the images … as ephemeral, delicate, and fragile as the hidden queer histories they are derived from.”


Vaughan and Margolin are inspired by the nature and condition of the historical materials they have encountered in their research. The aging newspapers, documents, and photographs are in peril of fading like the lives they barely recall. The pair began to think of ash and charcoal as materials that would allow them to achieve a similar aura.


“The wind drawings, out of anything we’ve done to date, feel like they exist in that ambiguous place of being both sad and beautiful, of having this thing that’s disappearing and falling apart, but it’s also permanent,” Vaughan told Arts and Culture Texas in July 2022.


“Norma Trist: a Livre d'Artiste; or Pure Carbon: A Story of the Inversion of the Sexes” is an artist book made in collaboration with Flatbed Press in Austin, Texas. The subject is the 1895 book by Eugene von Boeckmann, published in Austin, that features what is likely the first lesbian protagonist in a novel. The layout of the text is based on the 2016 installation “50 States: Texas,” in which the complete text was stenciled over 100 linear feet of paper with loose graphite powder. It was degraded over the course of the exhibition by the external environment. Six intaglio prints and a 149-page accordion-bound serigraph text with illustrations, produced in the same carbonized and blown approach as the wind drawings, are contained in an elegant custom-made box. The typography is based on the lead typeface from the original book and was designed by Margolin and Vaughn. Each chapter is illustrated with an image taken by the artists of what currently stands on the sites of historic lesbian and gay bars across the state of Texas. For this exhibition, all the print pieces are displayed outside their box, with the prints wall-mounted and the book displayed on a desk surface.


“Spiritus: Obergefell v Hodges” consists of remnants from a recent performance piece. The artists read the entirety of the Obergefell Supreme Court decision that led to the national legalization of gay marriage. They read the text into yellow plastic bags, filling the performance space with these bags until they formed a “critical mass.” Subsequently, the yellow bags were deflated, and the spent bags were bound into a compelling hanging piece. In a companion piece titled “Spiritus: 20 Hours of Fox News Read into Bags as a Volume of Breath,” the artists alternate speaking the news referenced in the title into white bags, filling a motel room. This performance is documented in a two-minute video loop. Once again, they have utilized carbon as a material, breathing their content into the bags. Like the wind drawings, these performances were ephemeral and metaphoric. 


Vaughan and Margolin are partners in both their lives and their practice, and their commitment to the 50 States Project has become their life’s work. They are researchers and artists by nature, and they dedicate those sensibilities to discovering and mapping the stories of queer people and places that have been forgotten to history and time.

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