"50 States" Exhibit at the Art League Houston Has One Hidden Gem

One tire track, and it's finished. An unnamed image from the "50 States" collection.EXPAND
One tire track, and it's finished. An unnamed image from the "50 States" collection.
Photo by Nick Vaughan and Jake Margolin

Visiting Art League Houston’s galleries can be hit-or-miss, and sometimes the only thing tasteful in the building can be the joe served in the attached cafe. But of the four exhibits currently on display, only “50 States: Wyoming” seems to offer visitors an art gem.

The “50 States” project was conceived by local artists Nick Vaughan and Jake Margolin as a means to celebrate a moment in gay history that occurred in each state in the Union. For Wyoming, the first in the series, the inspiration for this set of pieces was a “pleasure excursion” through the state by a pair of gay hunting and trading men from the 1840s. That they brought 100 of their friends who were probably also gay on this 1,200-mile debauched event only adds to the spiciness of the story, and Vaughan and Margolin decided to follow the same route and chronicle their journey using video and crafted art.

Sadly, Vaughan and Margolin fail to transfer the exciting elements of the motivating event into their project, and instead focus on the mundane and predictable images one might expect of a journey through one of our least populated states. The visitor is expected to find meaning in the largely monochromatic Western images covered in muddy tire treads, under which sit piles of the same dirt. And although Wyoming is known for its clear, open skies and rugged landscapes, the curator chose to present the exhibit in a poorly lit room with industrial effects, making the trip feel more like a somber march than a celebration of hidden GLBTQ history.

Bridge and Found Graffiti: Donipan NE
Bridge and Found Graffiti: Donipan NE
Photo by Andres Alcoser

Unfortunately — or fortunately, depending on how a visitor views it — the seminal piece of art that’s worth the trip to ALH is found at the end of the gauntlet, in a corner that mediocrity-weary aficionados might otherwise miss. Titled Bridge and Found Graffiti: Donipan NE, this epic work is a sight to behold: Eight found road maps of Wyoming arranged in landscape format and painstakingly dissected with what must have been a fine blade reveal the image of a bridge the authors crossed during their journey. The maps have neat-edged gaps transected by filaments of map paper suspended between panes of glass, but despite the fragility of the material, the image is perceptible and solid.

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Bridge is a spring of cold, clear water waiting at the end of a thirsty search for true art, and is well worth the trip to see it. The size of the piece, as well as the sparse backlighting against the black corner, creates a layered scene that consumes the viewer with a blend of skill and soul. Whether you're standing back or leaning close, it begs you to see the complexity of its placidly glowing message of the hidden past, solitude and beckoning adventure.

Its companion piece, Lost Pardner, is perched on a wall nearby and is worth a look, but while it is similar to Bridge in technique (with the inclusion of silent scrubland video as the backlight), Pardner doesn’t capture the spirit of the king of the gallery. Considering the faltering work that is Pardner, Vaughan and Margolin may have produced a one-hit wonder in Bridge and Found Graffiti – but then again, with dozens of states left in their tour and many future pieces yet unseen, it doesn’t hurt to leave this pair on the list of future artists worth watching out for. Active and occasional art lovers will likely enjoy “50 States: Wyoming,” if only for Bridge. After a season of uninspired and bland Houston art, a refreshing glass of spring water will do just fine, thank you.

Through February 27 at Art League Houston, 1953 Montrose, open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, Saturday noon to 5 p.m., closed Sunday and Monday; for information, call 713-523-9530 or visit artleaguehouston.org.


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