Text by Julie Haire
Photography by Stefan Kocev
THE LOS ANGELES-BASED ARTIST DELVES INTO OUR RELATIONSHIP WITH NATURE, SOCIETY AND REALITY WITH PLAYFUL PAINTINGS THAT ARE FULL OF LIFE.
Sage Vaughn likes to paint birds. The average person might not consider them much, but for Vaughn, they are the most common reminder of the chaotic universe we live in. “I try to believe that I am doing things; I make plans, and everything matters so much,” he says. “But you catch a glimpse of a bird and you’re like, it’s all just a giant, wild, chaotic mess, and it’s really lucky if I can make it from point A to point B on a daily basis.”
And from that, you make art that people remember.
Vaughn was born in Oregon and raised in Los Angeles. He didn’t set out to become an artist; he actually went to college to become a doctor but dropped out when he realized he hated school. Later, while taking an art class to finish his degree, he created a painting for an assignment he felt was not worthwhile—paint a painting exclusively in shades of white—and even though he lamented it as a waste of time, his contemporary art history teacher bought it for $250. “What more validation could an art student want?” he says. “It felt great. I thought, I’d like to be part of that.”
For the past 10 years or so, he’s been making art that stands out for its often whimsical, quirky take on nature vs. modern society. He has had solo shows in Los Angeles, New York, London and Geneva, among other cities. Two of his most well-known series are all about contrasts: In Wildlifes, sweet, colorful, vibrant animals like birds, butterflies and owls are set against stark backdrops of urban cityscapes—helicopters, apartment buildings, traffic. In Wildlives, innocent-looking young children are similarly portrayed against raw city life. The juxtaposition undoubtedly works to relay a comment on society, though Vaughn is not trying to tell anyone what to think.
“I think in general most people take away kind of a dystopian [feeling], but to me it’s really just about a setting,” he says. “It’s almost like the backdrop on a stage. What’s important to me is the sense of it. I’m not trying to tell people what to do with it. It’s a feeling.” That goes for environments too; he’s not trying to single out any place in particular in his work. He says the cities he paints are usually anonymous, so you can’t recognize if it is Mexico City or East L.A. “Usually it’s just the idea of a city—a lived-in city,” he says. “I find the right city that has a dark doorway in it so I can get the feeling I want.”
Another hallmark of his work are the pronounced drips of paint that roll down his canvases. It was not, at first, intentional, he says, but the nice byproduct is that they allow him to get out of what he calls his “critical head space.” “For me, it’s just an excuse not to be too fussy,” he says. “It’s nice to relax a little bit, or for my head to relax. I think all the drips kind of fell into a blind spot in my critical eye in the beginning. And then people really started to kind of champion them in my work, which is so bizarre. There’s so many other things in the work that you want to talk about and have acknowledged, and everyone’s really excited about these drips.”
But now, especially with the larger-scale pieces, he concedes that they add history. “You can tell the order in which it was painted almost,” he says, “what paint was laid down first.” Plus, he adds, “I really relish paint. I love paint. I like painters who like to paint. There’s a few of them out there who really enjoy the chemicals and the viscosity and the way that it moves when you apply these weird liquids on a vertical surface and what happens. I mean, I can literally watch paint dry all day long.”
That something accidental like paint drips would become significant in his work is emblematic of the kind of artist Vaughn is. His father was a commercial artist and taught him the basics of drawing and visual expression, but the majority of his work is the result of “trial and error,” which is the way he likes it. “For the most part I am self-taught,” he says. “I make all my mistakes in public. I like being self-taught because I’m excited to see what I can learn; I’m very invested in furthering my skills and knowledge of what I’m doing. I see other artists that don’t have that kind of drive. They have what they do figured out, and they just kind of do it.”
Painting is a solitary pursuit—as Vaughn says, he spends all day every day in his Pasadena studio, literally working for a year to do an art show that lasts three hours. Fortunately, he loves every bit of it (even watching paint dry). “I enjoy the process, so I commit my time to it,” he says. “It’s not just random bursts of creativity.”
He is a workhorse. That must be what Malibu Magazine meant by saying “he is the only artist with a blue-collar mentality.” Between art, surfing and the baby he and his wife just adopted, he says there is not a minute of his day that is not accounted for. “I tend to fill up everything,” he says. “If I can work more, I work more.”