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ART REVIEW : Vaughn's Work Wears Its Heart on Its Sleeve

November 26, 1987|CATHY CURTIS

Stuffed shirts they may be, but Nick Vaughn's altered men's clothes are really puckish investigations into riddles of social conditioning and personal identity.

In an exhibit of Vaughn's work from the past nine years at UC Irvine's Fine Arts Gallery (to Saturday) generic polyester-blend plaids and chambrays sprout buttons and bunchings in unlikely places, an oversize neckband, bizarre fabric inserts or elaborate webs of threads.

Draped on headless, armless mannequins, Vaughn's creations wander across the line between modest protection from the elements and the vagaries of fashion. And they prod some offbeat thoughts. Would men adapt if the only shirts available had sleeves strapping the arms immovably against the body? Why is it perfectly OK to have, say, a pointed collar but peculiar to attract attention to the underarm?

For several years, Vaughn starred in his own ironic photographs of these shirts, posing at the supermarket or with relatives in someone's driveway.

Most puzzling of the earlier works--in Vaughn-terms, potentially the most rewarding--is "Sobriety Suit II."

A tall, convex wood stanchion painted deep turquoise with little platforms holding an assortment of ceramic vases is fitted with a painted box-like object like a stereo speaker. On one side, the box offers the image of a bedroom decorated with vases on shelves; on the other, a red car covered with a snowy white cloth borrowed from a Spanish still life.

The recent work moves in several directions, some more rewarding than others. A headless mannequin with a protruding stomach and a swath of material draped between the legs suggests at once the portly carriage of middle age and the helplessness of a diapered child.

Baby clothes wrapped within bulging shirt fronts verge disappointingly on the sentimental. Shirts with buttoned-on tissue overlays have a pathetically festive air, as if parading other people's identities might return an adult to the open-ended possibilities of his youth.

Diamond-shaped black-and-white photographs--one, of a bulbous man with a portrait of a prim-looking woman on his shirt-front--signal a promising new approach to decoding the dense mysteries of human personality.

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