Several years ago, Nick Vaughan and Jake Margolin began working on a project that became known as “50 States.” The goal was to work with historians, archivist, photographers and activists to create a narrative and visual/conceptual framework that make up an immense queer national heritage. Through the years, the artist duo have been presenting the ongoing 50-part series of installations and social engagement projects. The 50 States project was mounted at institutions such as Mitchell Center for the Arts, Art League Houston and Invisible Dog Art Center in Brooklyn, and has already been highly reviewed and received. The project is not only commendable, but comes at a time of progressive change that simultaneously sees a sour backlash against the LGBTQ community through acts of violence and discriminatory legislation. The endeavor has grown into a vast and never ending journey from the wealth of information that has been collected.
Through their intensive collection process, they have realized that much of what they have collected did not fit to the particular project at hand but was a fountain of knowledge that needed to be activated. As they researched, it became clear to them that the Montrose community has served as a beacon for queer folk locally in addition to being a beacon of influence throughout the entire Gulf Coast region and beyond. Working with new collected histories, the team began to engage in a new project, separate from 50 States, that honed in on the significant values of a diverse and rich community.
“The Scene is the first time that we have taken substantial time (in this case about nine months of work) to fully shift our focus from our 50 States Project to follow one of these veins,” state Vaughan and Margolin. “We imagine that as we continue our 50 States Project, there will be more and more of these ancillary projects, which doesn’t bode well for our prospects of ever finishing 50 States (which already project will take another 40 years) but one of the great joys of the way we’ve set up this project and our lives is that we can change direction whenever we wish, and allow our research in each state to lead us wherever it leads us.”
The duo’s new exhibition focuses on the important role and political effect Houston’s drag scene has had on the local community. Revolving around the times between the Stonewall riots and the AIDS crisis, the exhibition pulls from the deep archives to paint a pure picture of not just a movement, but a solid foundation for a community. The artists work with narratives collected in collaboration with such organizations a GCAM (the Gulf Coast Archive and Museum for Gay and Lesbian History) and University of Houston Libraries Special Collections, alongside community members. The new project provides an inspiring glance into the thriving drag scene in 1970s and early ’80s for LGBTQ citizens living in the Gulf Coast region. It was originally premiered at a variety of spaces across the city, exhibiting as The Scene (Houston 1969-1981) at Houston Community College Southeast’s Wedge Space in October of 2017, and at the celebrated gay bar Tony’s Corner Pocket, in addition to an exhibition at the University of Houston MD Anderson Library.
The Scene opened up at Devin Borden Gallery this month to a packed house of supporters, curators, fellow artists and gallery goers. The two artists have never held back with the production and scope of their visions. There are, with any artists, a few pieces that may not hold their weight in said exhibition, but that is rarely the case with Margolin and Vaughan. The execution of their works, performances and installations are impressively flawless. The exhibition is a powerhouse of knowledge and an ever-thoughtful display of a truly cherished part of Houston history.
If anything, one might find themselves wondering why we have so much missing data to this very important slice of our cultural heritage. Houston has been a beacon for the queer community for decades through its businesses, political actions, marches, events and institutions, which have made a sound impact on our collective history. Margolin and Vaughan have brought these past and often sensitive topics to the surface and reimagined them with beauty and precision.
Inside Devin Borden’s main gallery is the centerpiece THE SCENE (Houston: 1969 – 1981). The piece is composed of a cluster of segmented images of legendary and celebrated drag queens and personalities, who are bedazzled and featured on a map of Houston and its throughways. The maps, as seen in Vaughan and Margolin’s early works, are meticulously cut, leaving only the streets, roads and intersections behind. The featured queens and individuals are known not just from their performances, but the impact that had within the community and the important and powerful followings they maintained. The attention to this piece was particularly interesting for the way the images were not printed on the maps. The represented individuals are made up of the non-removed Houston sections of the map. If cut free, only blank space would remain, and no more neighborhoods or districts would be seen. In Revolutionary Implement: Nail Lacquer, the bright pink megaphone hangs in a chamber of sorts surrounded by infinity mirrors. The presence alone of the tool of civic empowerment blares as loudly visually as it would from the words of power coming from it. The case is one of two sculptures shining brightly from a dark room.
Revolutionary Implements: Molotov Cocktails features a stiletto encased in wax laying on the bottom of the elevated platform presenting as a monument for luscious stage time. The pieces work perfectly as a pair, and anchor the room for the video playing behind them.
During the run of the exhibition, Vaughan and Margolin have organized a series of screening, events and discussions to surround and further project the stories rotating around The Scene.
On May 12, at 4 p.m. at Devin Borden gallery, A Landing in the Bayou will be presented. The multi-media artist lecture is based on interviews with drag queens, activists and community members who experienced the Houston drag scene in the years of Stonewall and the AIDS crisis, including Hot Chocolate, Tasha Kohl, Kelly Lauren, Ray Hill and Mary Hooper.
On May 3, at 7:30 p.m., the artist will be presenting Political Gestures. Political Gestures is a multi-channel video installation featuring Oklahoma-based drag queens working in collaboration on overtly political drag performances. Celebrating the role and struggle of drag in LGBTQ progress, Political Gestures features speeches during the 1979 March on Washington for Gay and Lesbian Rights, radically political queer music, and interviews with contemporary members of the LGBTQ Oklahoma community. Although not directly affiliated or created for The Scene project, it carries a similar thread of dialog and importance to the overall conversation. The volume is continuously being turned up within the works of Jake Margolin and Nick Vaughan, and the new exhibition is a tour de force.