Sage Vaughn is optimistic, humorous, vulnerable, and he immediately welcomed us on the day we visited his studio. His Pasadena studio, which sits behind a car wash, is full of works in progress, including the butterfly and moth paintings that were included in the Transmission LA exhibition at MOCA. He joked about the fact that he was named after the herb, “sage” by his hippie parents. He is endlessly enthusiastic about living in Los Angeles, stating “I love L.A., its uncontrived exoticness, it is never ending and stretching… it is just a total brain-fuck to be here. I love how weird it is, always, and it just makes me feel sane to be here.” His dad recently moved to New Mexico, and has asked Sage to come out for an eclipse, for which Sage is considering renting a camper to make the drive with his wife.
Sage explained that at one point in his career, he became frustrated thinking he was painting only for kids, but then on a studio visit with Chris Burden and viewing Metropolis II, an elaborate sculpture utilizing toy cars, he instantly felt better and confident about his direction as an artist. Also present in the studio are large sculptural wall works that have never been shown, and a collection of exquisite masks that were constructed a few years ago. His eyes lit up when talking about contemporary painters, and specifically when he saw Daniel Richter’s works for the first time. Then our conversation quickly flipped to “Easy Rider”, an American biker magazine, and the magazine clippings that will be turned into surrealistic collaged postcards, and eventually mailed out. Later this year, Sage will be showing new works in China, for which he is currently working on in his studio the day we arrived.
Tell me where you are from, and where you grew up.
I grew up in the valley here in Los Angeles, but I was born outside of Ashland, in Jackson, Oregon. My family lived across the little Applegate River, near the highway, which was a logging highway. My parents were full on off-the grid hippies, potbelly stove folks. Growing up, I didn’t realize until I was old enough to get a babysitter, that our family photographs were all naked. And when the babysitters would come over, they’d be giggling at it, and all I could think of is, “doesn’t everybody grow up like this?”
Do you ever think of this as being connected to your use of nude imagery in your work?
I don’t know. I’ve never thought of it that way. I tend to think of myself as more connected to these ideas surrounding love. When you see a 70 pound crazy crackhead pushing another 70 pound crackhead in a wheelchair on “the Nickel” in downtown, and you think, “Dude, they are in love, and that is so rad.” Those are the things I think are really great, and my parents showed me that.
How did you become involved with Mike D for the show at MOCA?
Mike D had bought a piece of mine at a charity auction for an organization called SurfAid International. They are helping to eradicate a lot of preventable diseases in the poorer parts of Indonesia. They are a super-focused and small charity, and we did an art show at a friend’s house in Malibu. Mike D and his wife bought a piece at that event. Then, I would see Mike around surfing, and I would say “Hello” to him, and he would say “Hey Sage,” and that was about it. So I thought, maybe my hero from childhood doesn’t want to know me, and that’s ok. (laughing). But then, about a year ago or more, we’d see each other more, and we started talking about surfing, artwork, and his wife, Tamra Davis, who had just finished that movie on Jean-Michel Basquiat, “The Radiant Child” which I thought was a really great bio on him.
Oh, did she direct that documentary?
Yes, it was really amazing, right? You know, growing up, Basquiat was one of the only portraits of an artist I knew, that was alive. I didn’t go to art school, I was technically proficient as an artist, but in terms of the rhetoric, and the other parts of it, I just felt things innately, not intellectually. But with that, it was great to see how she portrayed him, in a way that I felt he was. Basquiat was driven, he didn’t happen to just fall into his career, he was mega ambitious, he worked hard, which are all things I really respected in artists. As well, the film showed that in the early 80’s in America, to be a black man making artwork was still an issue. I mean it’s one thing to say that we have come so far, but fuck that is just so heavy to even think about. So it was really amazing just to talk with her, and to get her point of view on it.
Where do you surf in Los Angeles?
I mainly surf in Zuma Beach, but really I will surf all over. I live on the Eastside of Los Angeles, so sometimes I will drive down to Newport Beach, and then sometimes up north to Ventura County, which is about the same distance. But you get such a different read on people depending on where you are. Ventura County is like no one talks to you, everybody just stays to themselves, everyone is really polite. But then you go to Newport and Orange County, and the guys have these bleached blonde tips (laughing), it’s a totally different weird scene. It’s pretty cool. I actually really like the driving, and sitting in my car. Usually I’ll take off at 6 am in the morning, I don’t even really realize that I am doing the drive until I get there. I’ll stop in the valley, grab a quick cup of coffee, show up at the water, and kind of rub my eyes, jump in the water, and just wake up. And then on the way back, I sit in my car, and answer all my business phone calls, and by the time I get back to the studio I can work. So it works for me.
What time do you get back to your studio?
I’d say probably 11.
Can you talk further about what interests you with your recent paintings in regards to colors?
With the butterfly works, they are a really good vehicle for me to explore color, kind of boundless, without being too regimented to reality, and I can then play with the idea of seeing with these photographically painted backgrounds on some, and some with vacant backgrounds, and I can adhere more to the rules of what something should and shouldn’t look like with that. But with the butterfly works, I can just paint with color. I really like messing with the alchemy of different colors. So we have done a bunch of pieces where some have this background, and others don’t. The new pieces, like the works installed at MOCA, all have these unnatural formations of the swarm into these circles. It has been a lot of fun to take a theme and to just push it.
Is there a theme to these new works?
The initial jumping off point for these new works is the opening numbers of Wagner’s “Ring Cycle.” Within that, the dwarf Albrecht goes to the bottom of the Rhine River and steals this magic gold from the Rhine maidens. It just leads to this insanely long, crazy story dealing with incest, gods, and then he takes this gold and makes a ring of power, and so I took that idea of harvesting something from the natural world , and then manifesting something synthetic, man-made out of it. All my work deals with these notions of “the wild”, and “society.” What we can control and what is chaos. I like playing with these ideas back and forth, and finding different utterances. With the kids that I paint, there is the psychological representation of that before they are convinced that these are the set of emotions of what adults have. This is what you are supposed to wear, this is what you are supposed to do, and then they are still doing this kind of improvisational living, which is what I feel like animals do. And then I have also been painting these bored cops lately. The cops are there to enforce us if we get too wild, but then if they are bored, then maybe it’s about we are not being wild enough? I’ve been obsessed with bored cops, and also the flower sellers at the end of highway ramps, how it is illegal for them to sell flowers there. Those are the new works, I don’t know what that means, but I like pushing those ideas back and forth.
Do you think there is humor in your work?
I hope so. I mean, I hope there are levels to it, like aesthetically, and hopefully beyond that. I think we need to laugh at this condition, so I think people should find humor in it. I worry sometimes, that everyone is too serious in the art world, but then I look around at artists that I admire like John Currin and Ed Ruscha, and I think they are always doing funny paintings. These darkly funny works. And that makes me really happy.
Who are other contemporary painters that you admire?
Oh, I love Daniel Richter. I did a show in Hamburg at this collector’s place, and he had this insane collection in the basement of his private museum. There were racks and racks of paintings. There were these Richter’s paintings on sliding racks, and then there would be six Richard Prince‘s works, and you would be like “fuck!”. Richter just struck me. I’d seen pictures of him before, but seeing this stuff in person was really, really powerful. I hadn’t felt this way about works in a while, really since David Hockney, had I really felt any power in person. He also had some amazing works by Peter Doig, which were great to see. For the show, I got a new suit, and I am in Hamburg with my wife, and we show up at the opening, and nobody talked to us the entire night, because I was wearing a suit, and nobody knew I was the artist. It was really rad and strange, my wife and I were grinning idiots in the corner, thinking what do we do. (laughing).
This portrait was planned and executed with the support of Wolfgang Würth and his team on the occasion of TRANSMISSION LA: AV Club. Please also view the FvF feature on the current mb!-Magazine website. Thanks to everyone involved!
Text & Interview: David John
Photography: Zen Sekizawa