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 at UC Irvine's Fine Arts Gallery of the artist's work from the past nine years, generic polyester-blend plaids and chambrays sprout an oversize neckband, bizarre fabric inserts or elaborate webs of threads, and buttons and bunchings in unlikely places.
Displayed on headless, armless mannequins, Vaughn's creations wander across the relatively arbitrary line between protection from the elements and the vagaries of fashion. And they prod some offbeat thoughts. Would men somehow learn to adapt if the only shirts available had sleeves that seal the arms against the body? Why is it considered perfectly OK to have, say, a pointed collar but peculiar to attract the viewer's eye to the area of the chest next to the underarm?
Cut and stuffed to create a flat-topped bulwark of a jacket looming over tweed pants and shoes, "Big Tweed" of 1982 now seems perilously close to the wilder shores of Italian couture, but the unlikely blend of overbearing bulk and haughty tailoring retains a stolid, obdurate quality. As in all of Vaughn's work, there is a stubborn core that refuses to capitulate to casual viewers' expectations of "wearable art."
For several years, Vaughn starred in his own photographs of his shirts, posing at the supermarket or with relatives in someone's driveway. In these pictures, he tends to comport himself as if he found his own body mildly uncomfortable, and he smiles in a close-lipped way as if responding reluctantly to directions from someone outside the frame.
Before he began working with clothes, Vaughn played around with a number of other quirky ideas in two and three dimensions. In "A Confused Effort to Enter a Hopper" (the title alludes to the peculiar art world convention that a viewer can "enter" a painting), a woman in a perfectly coiffed gray pageboy, her hands curled around her neck and the side of her head in a paroxysm of frustration, peers at a copy of "Eleven A.M.," Edward Hopper's painting of a nude looking out the window of a sunstruck room.
The most puzzling of the earlier works--in Vaughn's terms, potentially the most rewarding--is "Sobriety Suit II." A tall, convex wood stanchion painted deep turquoise, it is fitted with little platforms that hold an assortment of ceramic vases and a boxlike object (a stereo speaker?). This piece is painted on one side with the image of a bedroom decorated with vases on shelves; on the other, with a red car covered with the kind of snowy white cloth that appears in old Spanish still lifes.
There also are punning little touches: painted images of wood juxtaposed with real wood, and a stretch of rippled ivory cloth, the sort that comes in gift boxes of liquor. Word is that Vaughn used to climb in the "Suit" and rock back and forth, while the vases sat calmly on their perches.
His recent work moves in several directions, some more fruitful 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, spelling out a medley of first names in oversize running stitches, 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 mysteries of human personality. Moving closer to stylized genres of contemporary photography, Vaughn isn't giving up the oblique edge that sharpens his best work.
"Nick Vaughn: Selected Work 1978-1981" remains at the Fine Arts Gallery, UC Irvine, through Dec. 13. Gallery hours are noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Admission is free. Information: (714) 856-6610.