Owls with gangster tattoos. Children frolicking amidst an industrial landscape. Butterflies possessed by Dionysian fury. All of these unlikely subjects are recurring motifs in the phantasmagoric paintings of Los Angeles-based artist Sage Vaughn. His work continually tests the stability of the elusive boundary that separates the natural world from an urban sensibility—a complicated balance that emanates from his paintings with grace. With a solo show, The Runaways, currently on exhibition at San Francisco’s Fifty24SF Gallery and with two solo shows in China next year, Sage is quickly becoming a key player in the Los Angeles art scene.
Amy Davis: A lot of people think the backgrounds in your street scenes are actually blurry photographs atop which you’ve painted. How did that layered aesthetic develop?
Sage Vaughn: I love taking pictures, but I’m terrible at it. I used to take shots with disposable cameras and leave the plastic wrapping on, over the lens. The pictures came out looking like memories. They were like dreams—the harder you focused on them, the less you could see. So much of the imagery that we see today is digitally manipulated and, frankly, mediocre. Why does everything we see need to look like a Bruce Willis movie poster? By painting the backgrounds in my pieces a little imperfectly and out of focus, they shift from the “specificity provided by a camera lens” point-of-view and instead fall within the realm of recollection. They have the sentiment of a city, rather than that of an actual locale.
Amy: Your manila envelopes are featured prominently in The Runaways and are becoming a cornerstone in your body of work. How did you first decide to start painting on envelopes?
Sage: I started those because I love the idea of making something while you’re making something else. I have them around the studio constantly. At some point, they began to take the place of my sketchbooks. I kept them catalogued by date, thinking that I would look back at them years later, but a gallerist came through the studio a couple of years ago, drank some of my special studio espresso, got fired up and went through all of them and thought people might like to see them. I like that they provide a consistent format for me to work in.
Amy: Birds, butterflies, coyotes…What is your affinity to these particular animals?
Sage: Birds and coyotes….these are animals that are thriving in our world. I’m interested in that facet of our existence—that area where the line between instinct and tradition is less defined. We love to call it black and white, but the difference between wilderness and society is not so clear to me. I like to echo the existence of these animals in my work, to chip away at our illusion of control. Emotionally, I prefer the chaos. The day after the ’94 Northridge earthquake, I was driving with my father through the San Fernando Valley. Most of the cinder block walls that surrounded people’s yards had fallen down, and I saw a pack of pet dogs running 50 deep through the streets. They looked like revolutionaries the day after the dictator had been overthrown. I remember sitting in my dad’s truck, wanting to run with them.
The Runaways by Sage Vaughn is on exhibit at FIFTY24SF GALLERY, 218 Fillmore Street, San Francisco, CA, through December 15.
Photographs and text by Amy Davis. Paintings by Sage Vaughn.
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