Dyed, Ripped And Torn: St. Louis Multimedia Artist Vaughn Davis

 In Culture, Feature

Vaughn Davis’ great-grandparents moved to St. Louis more than half a century ago and settled in the Central West End neighborhood as the first Black family on their block. Decades later, the homegrown artist is nearing the end of his undergraduate career at Webster University and can trace his childhood to neighborhoods all over the city—a geographically diverse experience which informs his work, while still offering plenty of rich, untapped inspiration.

Over tea on a Sunday evening, the 22-year-old multimedia artist reflects on his family’s St. Louis roots and his 91-year-old great-grandmother, who still lives in the Central West End home she first purchased with her husband more than 50 years ago. Davis leans back in his chair, and, with a soft, reverent smile says, “I’m thinking about how to use my practice and give it toward this life that has been here, that existed before I was even there.”

Thoughtful and inventive, Davis easily finds fascination in observations and experiences across the city’s vast, complicated landscape. His artistic practice is fueled by the colors and textures of Americana and the fixtures—scientific or otherwise—that shape his experiences. Most known for his sizeable canvas works, Vaughn’s stunning, hanging pieces have been shown at The Luminary, Philip Slein Gallery and elsewhere. His “tear works,” as he calls them, are dyed, torn and manipulated, exposing viewers to an unresolved dialogue about how the world transforms malleable materials.

You started out working in ceramics, right? What interested you the most about that medium?
I started off working with clay my freshman year of undergrad, specifically because it was so loose. I felt like it was thing that I could mold into anything, and it also had that freedom that I was looking for, in a way. I never really felt that I was a ceramicist, though—that label was just kind of put there.

Since then, you’ve switched to working with canvas, applying different dyes and treatments to create different effects. What pushed you in this new direction?
I’ve never compared the two, but my canvas works actually started in a ceramics room. When you’re working with clay, you use a wedging board, which is a wooden table outfitted with canvas. One day I was working in the ceramics room, and I changed out one of these canvas boards, took it off and put it on the wall. It had all these holes that were existing it in already, and it was dyed, and it had all of these marks that I didn’t have any control over. I put it on the wall and was like, ‘There it is! This is what I’ve been looking for.’

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It seems like canvas is usually a kind of background detail in visual art. It’s considered part of the architecture of a given painting, but rarely ever the focus. With your work, though, the canvas is the piece itself.
Yeah, I wanted to keep the conversation as pure as possible, with regards to the initial departure and how I first discovered these canvases and began these works. And canvas itself has a lot of qualities that are really interesting to me. Canvas is cotton duck, which means that it’s made of cotton weaved in a specific pattern to give it certain properties. So like, ripping the canvas with the grain is easy, and going against it is difficult. My canvas works speak a lot about design, and these rifts and tears, and the cutting away or taking away of a whole object.

I’ve also always been really interested in form. I can be so meticulous and so detailed with those canvases. I have complete control of the mark I make, the composition of the works, the way they’re laid out and the scale. When I worked with ceramics, I was always the person who wanted to make these crazy tall things that I could never achieve. But with my canvas works, I can expand so quickly without having to think about the restrictions that plague other mediums. I make something that acts like a structure but is less rigid.

Can you talk about your process? What inspires you? What sorts of things do you draw from?
Settling into this idea of abstraction was always interesting to me. For anything going through my head, instead of trying to type a word, I’m making a mark. Instead of reading a novel or watching a movie, I was creating these strokes that could, in a way, embody an event.

I’m also interested in exploring Americana, those related colors, and my relationship to them. Gallery spaces are typically painted white, right? There’s this idea of a white cube, and I wanted to occupy that space with my work in a way that’s subliminal. I do a lot of tear works that are in red and blue, so there’s this subtle flag imagery—either they’re reversible, or half of it’s red and half is blue. And then through these tears, you see the white. I’m thinking about the white as not only the negative space, but the positive space as well. So while this white cube exists around my work, I wanted to have a conversation using that white space to interact with my pieces.

In an interview with St. Louis Public Radio, you said that you’re creating pieces of art that “look as if gravity is its biggest burden.” It’s always interesting to see how gravity affects your tear works, how it drapes and pulls in places depending on how you’ve manipulated it.
Right. Gravity is literally the only thing keeping those works the way they are. The reason why I ended up so frustrated with ceramics, especially wheel-throwing, was because gravity was always the biggest burden for me. You could be throwing the clay and think you got it—then all of a sudden the entire thing just collapses. And I know gravity is just going to keep doing what it’s doing. But I was trying to reconfigure my own kinetic muscles to make this thing stand. I blame gravity for the reason I didn’t stay in ceramics [laughs].

And now gravity is the thing that keeps my tear works exactly in place. I would love to put them in a zero gravity chamber, though, just to see how they would float. It would be ghostly, you know?

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You also studied in Vienna, Italy over the summer, which was your first time traveling outside of the United States. What was that experience like?
It was awesome. Vienna is the perfect mix of city and nature. I got a grant to travel for my study abroad program and attend the Venice Biennale. And I saw so much art. I saw art by Hannah Black, and I went the Venice Biennale and saw Mark Bradford, and Anne Imhof—who is an artist I quite enjoy. Her works are really, really cool. And it was really lucky that the year I went, Mark Bradford was the one representing America at the United States pavilion. He’s awesome. His work sits in the realm of abstraction, but it’s all rooted in things he’s experienced in his life.

Your work pulls from a similar place, too, with much of the abstraction rooted in your experiences and observations in St. Louis. In that same St. Louis Public Radio interview, you mentioned using aspects of the city’s landscape to inform your work.
I started to look at the things I’d pass going though different neighborhoods in St. Louis on the north side and as I drove up Grand from the south side all the way up to I-70. I’d see things like a tarp on a roof that was supposed to be remolded or fixed, and it just never happened. Or different billboard signs where the vinyl is peeling off from being exposed to the elements, and all these things are being torn, ripped or deteriorated in some way.

But there’s one billboard a few minutes north of Delmar and Grand, and it’s literally one of the most beautiful, shredded—I mean it looks like someone has literally been working to shred this vinyl for the months. It’s one of my favorite visual elements I pass every day going to and from work. Just all of these things that are becoming ripped and shredded and torn apart over time.

And then you start having this conversation about authenticity and high-fashion objects, too. Like with fashion, the fact that people would actually buy pre-ripped denim. How does something pre-torn or pre-ripped become fashion? How does that become authentic? People spend $200, $300 or even upwards of $1000 to buy pre-ripped things—these faux-lived-in, faux-worn objects. That conversation is also part of my work—how to create these things that don’t have a life but [which] are made to look like they have a life.

I’m always interested to hear local artists’ perspectives on St. Louis’ art community. What are your thoughts on how it has grown or evolved over the last few years?
I think Twitter and Instagram play a big role, specifically for markets here in St. Louis. The renaissance couldn’t have been more perfectly timed. With social media, we’re able to see so much more, and it’s awesome. And the art community in St. Louis is pretty tight-knit, too. You kind of see everyone as you go out to galleries and art events and stuff.

There’s also this really interesting impromptu pop-up mentality about art in St. Louis. I think events like “Ask a Curator” at The Luminary are the next phase for us. We’re having more conversations with the institution, and those conversations need to keep happening in order for some of these young artists in St. Louis to fully understand how to collect and archive work—things like that.

You never see artists like us in places like the St. Louis Art Museum, and I think that’s also provided food for the renaissance in a way. We have a lot of artists in St. Louis who may not have gone to school to study art, but still want to be creative and active in these scenes. So then you have things like Artists Right to Create (ARTC), which is an artists’ collective with myself and several other local artists. We’ve put together over 25 art shows over the last year or so to give platforms to artists who don’t typically get institutional visibility.

I think some places like the Pulitzer are getting better, though, because they’re beginning to understand that this community is very strong and [that] there’s a lot happening around the city.

What’s next for you? Any upcoming shows, collaboration opportunities, or new artistic directions you’re hoping to pursue?
I’ve always wanted to use leather—that’s something I’m heavily researching right now, the use of other materials. But I don’t want to have a conversation about the materials—like leather versus silk or chiffon—as much as I want to have a conversation about the content and the mark that’s being made. That’s the only reason I haven’t actually switched the material so far.

I’ve also gotten to a point where I want a way to make my sketches and ideas transform into works more quickly. So I’m working with video, at the moment, and having a conversation about money and how society is built around it. I’m taking these super mundane things that I enjoy and elevating them in a way—hopefully without replicating the same ideas in art history about elevating the everyday, like Claes Oldenburg or Carrie Mae Weems and her Kitchen Table Series.

I’m also starting to look at some sort of master’s degree, but I can’t figure out if I should stay here or go somewhere else. I’m constantly thinking about that now: how to look at my city, but also how to look at St. Louis from somewhere else. That’s important, too, you know? Making work about places you haven’t been is just as important as making work about places you have been. Telling stories about places you want to go is just as cool as telling stories about somewhere you’ve already been. I’ve always really appreciated that.

Photography by Marcus Stabenow via Visitor Assembly.

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