‘His Work Is a Way to Grapple With the Politics of Living Today’: Dealer Almine Rech on Painter Vaughn Spann’s New Show in Brussels

Spann's long-awaited Brussels exhibition "Smoke Signals" has opened after months of postponement. Now, his dealer tells us what to expect.

Installation view of “Smoke Signals: Vaughn Spann” at Almine Rech Brussels. Courtesy the Artist and Almine Rech ©Vaughn Spann. Photograph by Hugard & Vanoverschelde.
Installation view of “Smoke Signals: Vaughn Spann” at Almine Rech Brussels. Courtesy the artist and Almine Rech ©Vaughn Spann. Photo by Hugard Vanoverschelde.

In the months leading up to this unexpected spring, the art world was abuzz about the young, Florida-born artist Vaughn Spann, whose impastoed abstractions and hypnotizing—and at times surrealistic—portraits, were summarily dazzling collectors and museums alike. 

Spann—who is still in his 20s and who completed his MFA at Yale just two years ago—seemed fated for a whirlwind year. In January, his solo show at Almine Rech gallery in New York sold out within the first week, and one of his paintings was on prominent display at the newly opened Rubell Museum in Miami.

Rech, who represents the artist in Europe and China and co-represents him in the US, had planned to follow up the hit exhibition with another one at her gallery’s Brussels space in the spring. Then, life abruptly went on pause around the world. 

Portrait of Vaughn Spann. Courtesy of the Artist and Vaughn Spann ©Vaughn Spann

Portrait of Vaughn Spann. Courtesy of Vaughn Spann, ©Vaughn Spann.

For many young artists, the hiatus was anxiety inducing, but for Spann, who likes to keep a level-headed balance between work and life, the change of pace brought time for painting, introspection, and a newfound appreciation for nature. Now, much to the delight of Rech, Spann’s long-awaited Brussels exhibition, “Smoke Signals,” has opened. 

“We have been working with Vaughn in preparation for this exhibition for many months and the presentation features never-before-seen paintings, many of which were created this year,” said the gallerist. “This exhibition focuses on his abstract works, including new paintings in which he has continued to explore the ‘X’ symbol that recurs in his ‘Marked Man’ series, while also developing his ongoing interests in iconography, shape, line, and color in many new and compelling ways.”

We spoke with Rech about what viewers can expect from this long-awaited exhibition, and why seeing art in person still can’t be beat. 

Installation view of “Smoke Signals: Vaughn Spann” at Almine Rech Brussels. Courtesy the Artist and Almine Rech ©Vaughn Spann. Photograph by Hugard and Vanoverschelde.

Installation view of “Smoke Signals: Vaughn Spann” at Almine Rech Brussels. Courtesy the artist and Almine Rech. ©Vaughn Spann. Photo by Hugard and Vanoverschelde.

How has the exhibition been influenced by the experiences of the past months?
Speaking with Vaughn, he describes the red circles that appear in his new works—such as Soul of a Nation (Homage) and Fleeting Memories and Lasting Moments—as relating to the pandemic in many ways, given how they recall the cyclical nature of our days beginning and ending, as well as the sense of spirituality that accounts for the amount of life and death we’ve experienced this year.

He also shared with me that the renewed sense of love for nature and the environment that many people have found during the pandemic, an appreciation for the opportunity to spend time outside, draws parallels to his work and that he has certainly been watching the sky, sun, and stars more often himself.

Installation view of “Smoke Signals: Vaughn Spann” at Almine Rech Brussels. Courtesy the Artist and Almine Rech ©Vaughn Spann. Photograph by Hugard and Vanoverschelde.

Installation view of “Smoke Signals: Vaughn Spann” at Almine Rech Brussels. Courtesy the artist and Almine Rech ©Vaughn Spann. Photo by Hugard and Vanoverschelde.

The gallery describes Spann’s work as “fundamentally personal.” Are there narratives attached to any particular works in the exhibition?

Vaughn speaks often about the way his work draws upon his own memories and day-to-day experience. He translates these through a conceptually rigorous practice that is also inspired by personal history. For example, he has shared that his use of terry cloth, a material he often employs in his abstract paintings—one example from our exhibition being The Exchange (North Star)—was born from his memories of folding towels with his grandmother as a child. Yet, while his work is closely connected to personal narratives, they challenge the viewer by defying singular interpretations in a way that is highly and universally relatable.

How do you see this exhibition in relation to what’s happening in the US politically this year?
Vaughn often describes his work as a way to grapple with the politics of living in this current day and age and all the things that shape who he is as an artist and a person. His artistic voice is incredibly powerful. 

Installation view of “Smoke Signals: Vaughn Spann” at Almine Rech Brussels. Courtesy the Artist and Almine Rech ©Vaughn Spann. Photograph by Hugard and Vanoverschelde.

Installation view of “Smoke Signals: Vaughn Spann” at Almine Rech Brussels. Courtesy the artist and Almine Rech. ©Vaughn Spann. Photo by Hugard and Vanoverschelde.

Why are these works and this show important in relation to the artist’s development?
From my first visit to Vaughn’s studio, I was immediately impressed by his fresh and conceptually rigorous practice. As an artist, Vaughn draws on personal and lived experiences, as we know regarding the ‘X’ symbol and the use of tarps, and his work expands on these influences as organically as they develop in real life, all while continuing to defy expectations and stretch his creative practice. His abstract paintings are especially powerful in the way he allows them to invite different interpretations, and the new works in this show reflect how he continues to bridge the past and the present, the personal and the universal, the vision of the cosmos.

How does it feel to finally have this show open to the public?

Nothing can replicate the experience of engaging with works of art firsthand, but physical exhibitions also offer a unique opportunity to share a cohesive narrative among the selection works featured. Vaughn’s show is a strong example—there is a special element to viewing these works as they are presented in the gallery. Experiencing the intentional variety of his works, as well as their relationships to one another, allows the viewer to best appreciate his process as an artist. Moreover, Vaughn’s work is incredibly tactile and intricate, as he develops his painting technique in many directions from projected matter, collage, spray paint, brush painting, and more, so there is much to discover when viewing these new works in person. 

Installation view of “Smoke Signals: Vaughn Spann” at Almine Rech Brussels. Courtesy the Artist and Almine Rech ©Vaughn Spann. Photograph by Hugard and Vanoverschelde.

Installation view of “Smoke Signals: Vaughn Spann” at Almine Rech Brussels. Courtesy the artist and Almine Rech, ©Vaughn Spann. Photog by Hugard and Vanoverschelde.

Smoke Signals” is on view at Almine Rech Brussels through October 10, 2020. Almine Rech represents Vaughn Spann in Europe and China, and co-represents the artist in the US.


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