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Escaping Anonymity : A Widely Praised Artist Bemoans the Small Market, Lack of Support in County

December 06, 1987|ALLAN JALON

Some people may view Orange County as an emerging haven for the arts, with the Performing Arts Center in its second season and the Newport Harbor Art Museum planning a new $20-million home. But none of that is helping Nick Vaughn.

Some local critics and curators consider Vaughn, 34, of Santa Ana, to be the most interesting young artist in Orange County. But these same people also point to Vaughn to illustrate how far home-grown talents can go before they hit the limits of Orange County as an art market.

"I'm not going to stay here," Vaughn said last week. "I'm going to New York for a month when the weather warms up in April. I'll decide then whether I'll move to Los Angeles or New York."

Vaughn's work has been in nine exhibits, most in Southern California, and a solo show is running at the UC Irvine Fine Arts Gallery through Dec. 12. His most distinctive work consists of quirkily inventive garments that, displayed on manikins, are skewed by bulging shapes and masses of thread that erupt as if from subversive inner layers. Admirers said he shrewdly restitches ordinary fabric into pieces of social and psychological commentary.

"He has done something that is very difficult to do; he has developed his own sort of vernacular," said Paul Schimmel, chief curator of the Newport Harbor Art Museum. "He is thinking in a sculptural tradition, using found and ready-made objects in a way that can only be described as surrealist." Critics have praised his work as sharp-edged and rewarding.

But his advocates also said Orange County lacks the environment to support a commercially successful art career: there is only a handful of local collectors; not enough of them take risks on new local artists; commercial galleries with art-world clout don't last; few local writers focus on art, and any publicity that is generated almost never makes it past the county line and into cultural power centers.

Phyllis J. Lutjeans, who gave Vaughn his first gallery exposure in 1982, said: "I think that the possibilities in Orange County for artists who have not been validated by outside collecting institutions are limited." Currently a museum scientist at UC Irvine, she is also the curator of his show there. "People would rather spend $30,000 or $40,000 (for work by) an artist, even a young artist, who is established," she said, "than $3,000 or $4,000 on one who isn't."

Vaughn has sold 25 pieces in 10 years, about a third of them to friends. He still supplements his income by painting houses.

Preparing to enter the modest, Spanish-style house Vaughn rents on a quiet Santa Ana side street, one wonders how he will be dressed: Could there be a more clothes-conscious host than this man, who can instill a Twilight Zone strangeness into a plain gray suit and coerce bubonic lumps from the arm pits of a flannel shirt?

But he could barely have looked more conventional--in a flannel shirt (no lumps), a pair of blue jeans, wide window-frame glasses with black rims and gray socks, whose only wayward details were several gaping holes. Lounging crossways in an easy chair, pinching and smoothing his rumpled jeans, he talked about how he stumbled onto clothes as a medium:

"I would stand in front of a mirror, and I would see small changes emerge as I looked at myself. It was almost a hallucinatory process. I would pull at the clothing and stretch it and change the surface. . . . I wanted a sense of changes coming from the inside , not as attachments."

His words tumbled out with the laconic, self-effacingly flat quality of certain Jack Nicholson characters. Vaughn's look is also Nicholsonian: The even features just barely resist a degree of dishevelment; the hair is wildly tussled, and Vaughn keeps it that way, frequently stirring it with his hand as if something had gotten lost back there.

"I have no cultural background," said Vaughn, who was born in Santa Monica and raised in Westminster, the son of a Rockwell International technician. "As I grew up, I had no exposure to classical music, poetry or painting. We didn't go to the movies, and we didn't go to the theater. None of my friends did, either. Aerospace. We were part of the aerospace industry. Almost all my friends are machinists. My brother's a machinist. . . . I always thought I'd end up in the aerospace industry because everybody did."

He has always loved to draw, though. As a junior in high school, he took a standardized vocational aptitude test, and it told him to become a commercial artist. At Golden West College in Huntington Beach, fellow students influenced him, shaping his ambitions to work in the fine arts. He transferred to Cal State Fullerton and left with a master's degree in 1978.

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