Wayfinding (or way-finding) encompasses all of the ways in which people (and animals) orient themselves in physical space and navigate from place to place.
Whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent.
―Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West
There are lots of different reasons for making art. It takes a long time to develop a practice that is genuinely yours, one that can provide a small portal into who you are, your ethos, your particular bent on the world. The single common denominator is whatever keeps you making work, be it envy, anger, love… the artist is a miner for materials in their own life. There exists in an artist an unquenchable desire for expression, perhaps because it allows a sense of control that can only come from an inner wellspring.
Nick Vaughn and Jake Margolin’s latest exhibition, Wayfinding, on view at the Blaffer Art Museum in Houston through October 9, delivers an elegant and moving exploration of long-forgotten lives in subtle tones of windswept charcoal. The show depicts the passage of time that wears down dogmatic notions of history and identity to give sway to a more nuanced understanding of self. The artists’ mission is to become conduits of those inner wellsprings lost to history in the face of repression.
Their ongoing project, 50 States, is a brilliantly conceived generator which aims to explore personal histories of marginalized people from each state in the U.S.; people whose stories are ephemeral and murky, definitive more of legend than fact. The artists incorporate research and performance into a meticulous studio practice to help give voice to pre-Stonewall LGTB persons whose stories have endured only with the faintest of traces. These are people who managed to find identity in spite of their circumstances; their natural preferences, then defined as perversions, now become heroic tales of endurance thanks to Vaughan and Margolin’s dedication to their craft and subject matter. The exhibition exudes a masterful understanding of what the artists are doing, enforcing the notion that the original concept of 50 States is wonderfully strategized. Every show I have seen of theirs in this series has been unique, empathetic to its content, and entirely sincere, as evidenced by the high level of execution and craft on display.
This manifestation of the overall project takes the form mostly of epic charcoal “drawings.” These works are created by stenciling powdered charcoal onto paper, which is then subjected to airflow, dispersing the loose charcoal, yet leaving a suggestion of what the stenciled image once was. The works assembled en masse quietly speak to the viewer in the midst of superbly crafted frames and other supporting apparatus. Enough can’t be said, really, about the care and consideration the artists take in the show. The Blaffer, too, has done an excellent job of presenting the exhibit. The gallery is perfectly lit to study the drawings (sans glass), which demand close inspection. The dividends returned are romantic, subtle, and evocative of dreamscapes of lived experiences.
The subjects the artists focus their research on — the actual lives of marginalized persons — is delivered with a nuanced clarity, as though someone were conveying a cherished memory of struggle which, by its nature in time, endures in the heart more than the mind. These are stories of people finding a way to live and love in spite of a culture that denied them legitimacy. Their varied lives are sometimes more fulfilled than others, and in the hands of Vaughn and Margolin, they all are presented with a sense of dignity and profound romance.
In Sheep Camp (50 States: Colorado), the artists depict a building that served as “…the mess hall and kitchen of a remote sheep camp near Trinidad, Colorado…Charles ‘Frenchy’ Vosbaugh, who would now likely identify as a transgender man, cooked for decades in the late 1800’s.” Depictions of this particular time period in the U.S. are typically rife with uber-manly images of cowboys and marauders alike, all solid blocks in the fictional collective memory of homogeneity.
Indeed, as the McCarthy quote at the top of this page suggests, a description of the past has been defined for too long only by those who give their consent. Vaughn and Margolin posit: what about the others? What about their stories and lives of compromised expression? In the face of choices and lifestyles we don’t share, we too often define reality through a subliminal whitewash. At the Blaffer, the cruelty of the passage of time is deftly depicted with windswept charcoal drawings, yet the resemblance of structures, building facades, and other tectonic references remain, mimicking the way trauma can last as an undercurrent of memory — sometimes softening the events, sometimes not.
This show and the artists’ 50 States project suggest that there is much in our history to be weary of, as well as cherish. Social conditions in life change, although sometimes at a pace that is impossible to discern. It is a triumph that we can learn to examine our histories with fresh eyes infused with care and respect. Vaughan and Margolin are able to take an ugly fact of discrimination in our past and extrapolate a beautiful side of humanity that embraces rather than condemns. Indeed, it is a cartography of the heart, rather than a topography of travails… a road map to understanding.
Wayfinding is on view at the Blaffer Art Museum in Houston through October 9, 2022.