As most Our Lives readers are in the throes of a gray winter, Wisconsin-born and raised Vaughan Larsen (she/they), a talented trans-feminine artist originally from Omro, is exploring the Los Angeles art scene, evolving their practice, building community, and walking on sunshine.
The artist has been on a personal journey of growth and discovery since they started garnering serious attention for their photography while an undergraduate at UWM. Where Dorothy clicked her heels three times and ended up in Oz, Vaughan uses the power of their creativity to invent emerald cities that blur the lines between fantasy and reality—as well as magical worlds of LGBTQ+ possibilities.
Family Photos Reenvisioned
Vaughan’s photography jolted the Milwaukee art scene beginning with Self Portrait as my Grandmother on her Wedding Day, 2016, in which Vaughan dressed and posed exactly as their grandmother had for her wedding portrait. This project of restaging images from Vaughan’s family photos developed into two full series, Rites and Parenthood, in which the artist queerfully recreates images of heteronormative rites of passages found in many of our families’ photo albums.
By posing in the same positions as their family before them, Vaughan invites the viewer to compare the resulting portraits to the seemingly normal, neutral images that unconsciously auto-populate the viewer’s mind. In Self Portrait at my Baby Shower, 2019, Vaughan recreated a baby shower in which they are the expectant parent. Vaughan sits holding a present in one hand and the other on the round mound in front of their belly, which is clearly a basketball under their shirt.
In another photo, Self Portrait with the Newest Addition to our Family, 2019, Vaughan, sits in a hospital bed, wearing a gown and IV. They hold a small dog swaddled like a newborn baby, and a “partner” embraces them and the dog while the couple proudly smiles at the camera. In both examples, Vaughan appears to be having fun playing with friends, even four-legged ones, but the underlying commentary is a much more serious critique about how much our society encourages and rewards nuclear, monogamous, heterosexual families, and sexual reproduction. We are all too familiar with these and other clichéd scenes that fill our families’ photo albums and are plastered all over social media. Through queering the reproduced poses, the images in Rites and Parenthood effectively shed light on the systematic privilege conferred on people in positions to document these idealized scenarios.
Rites and Parenthood propelled Vaughan into Southeast Wisconsin’s regional arts scene in 2019, after they graduated with a BFA in Photography and Imaging from UWM. That same year, Vaughan was the first place winner of the Getty Images Creative Bursary LGBTQ+ Stories, Amsterdam Pride Photo Award, and received the prestigious Greater Milwaukee Foundation’s Mary L. Nohl Emerging Artist Fellowship.
Vaughan did not keep the limelight to themself. In 2018 they started curating projects with other queer artists. Vaughan launched an Instagram takeover account for LGBTQ+ artists to share their work (@thatwa.y). In 2021, as people were still social distancing due to the pandemic, Vaughan organized a show called “Queering the Cream City’’ and invited T. J. Dedeaux Norris and Laurence Philomene to assist as co-curators.
With the support of the New York-based organization SaveArtSpace, “Queering the Cream City’’ placed contemporary art from 12 LGBTQ+ artists on billboards throughout Milwaukee. As part of the exhibition, Vaughan also collaborated with The Alice Wilds Gallery to share the art of 13 additional artists from the project in a brick-and-mortar setting. For one glorious month during the summer of 2021, 25 local, national, and international artists transformed the Milwaukee cityscape into a COVID-safe, intersectional, urban gallery, and placed “culture over commercialism” in keeping with SaveArtSpace’s mission.
Furthering the Examination of Paradigm
In September of 2021, Vaughan moved westward for what was supposed to be a self-financed mobile arts residency of one year. After about six exhausting and expensive months, they landed in LA where they continue to explore the essence of personal identity and how we relate to one another. What sets Vaughan’s work apart is that instead of emphasizing romantic love or love of God, as Western artists have done for hundreds of years, Vaughan focuses on platonic love, eco-sensuality, love of nature, trans joy, and trans sisterhood.
Recently, the Museum of Wisconsin Art (MOWA) curated a solo exhibition titled, Vaughan Larsen: Everything I Could Ever Want (10/13/23—01/14/24) at MOWA’s Milwaukee outpost in Saint Kate, The Arts Hotel. The exhibition was initiated by Ally Wilber, former Curator of Public Programs at MOWA (she/her) and brought to fruition by Co-Curators: Thomas Szolwinski, Associate Curator of Architecture and Design (he/him), Anwar Floyd-Pruitt, Associate Curator of Contemporary Art (he/him). MOWA’s Executive Director Laurie Winters (she/her) explained, “Ally Wilber proposed the exhibition idea which was immediately embraced by the institution. MOWA is committed to including and representing our Wisconsin LGBTQ+ communities.” In Everything I Could Ever Want Vaughan still utilizes both portraiture and mimic reposing, but in ways that depart from the parodies of Rites and Parenthood.
Thomas Szolwinski describes this evolution as a natural unfolding, retelling the story of a pandemic road trip the artist took. According to Szolwinski, the artist “found themselves in a beautiful field, and the wind was blowing across their face, and they felt so free that they started crying, and I think that was a turning point where they said, ‘I really have to engage with nature in a deep way.’ And that is where they started photographing themselves in nature.” Soon after Vaughan moved to LA, they were focusing on self-portraiture in the living world, but also portraits of—or with—friends. Examples include, One with Moss, 2020, Green Doesn’t Always Mean Fertile, 2020, and Morass or More Ass?, 2021.
When Vaughan was considering hormone replacement therapy, they created an entire series titled, Cotyledon. On their website they wrote, “As I worked through feelings about the ‘natural’ state of my body, I photographed myself as a feminine figure in the American landscape.” In these portraits, classically composed down to the smallest details of how Vaughan positions their feet. The naked body is not raw or erotic, but conveys a spirituality and sensuality that emerges from and merges into nature, recalling Michelangelo’s words, “What spirit is so empty, that it cannot recognize the fact that the foot is more noble than the shoe, and skin more beautiful than the garment with which it is clothed?”
Some of Vaughan’s newer prints are far removed from nature, as Vaughan experiments with the staging and other tools of illusion Hollywood is known for. In From Thin Air, 2022, staged in the artist’s living room, Vaughan lays on their back, eyes closed, emerging from a slit in iridescent silver paper. Szolwinski enjoys the striking juxtapositions in Vaughan’s current efforts, noting that in MOWA’s recent exhibition, he deliberately centered From Thin Air so it would contrast with the lush green and earth-toned images behind it. Szolwinski attributes this movement in Vaughan’s artistic practice to the artist’s new environment and experiences in Los Angeles. “They started meeting more community members,” he said, “and really finding themselves at home there [and] they started to photograph inside and on sets and incorporating some less natural elements like the reflective silver and red wrap.” Whether taken outside in nature or staged indoors, Vaughan is still redeploying familiar tropes as a way of championing personal authenticity, liberation, and community connection, while encouraging the viewer to examine the unquestioned standards and values our cultural idols convey.
Making New Work From Old Work
More recently, instead of family photos, Vaughan is drawing from the canon of Western art history, especially art historical representations of gender and sexuality. In Lady Nosegay, 2023, Vaughan reclines on a rich floral set created by the infamous artist Paul McCarthy. Vaughan’s backside to the camera and their head turned over their shoulder, flowers cover their eyes. The resulting image looks like a mashup between Grande Odalisque, 1814, by Jean-Auguste Dominique and an early 1960’s film still from the queer art pioneer James Bidgood.
For another example, in Graces, 2023, three trans-feminine figures pose nude on a rocky beach, embracing in a tender and sisterly way. Many artists including Botticelli, Ruben, and Raphael have depicted their society’s feminine ideals via the allegory of the three Graces from Greek mythology. Vaughan’s work continues the dialogue, drawing attention to the exclusion of trans-feminine figures from representations of ideal feminine beauty and offering a counter-narrative in which transgendered bodies are charming, graceful, and beautiful.
Thirty-year-old Vaughan’s journey as an artist seems to both parallel and document their personal journey. In their quest to “connect with people first and foremost,” Vaughan has been moving more into performance art. Their performances include poetry, audience engagement, ritual, and ceremony. In Vaughan’s LA performance titled, Communion, 2022, the artist began by meditating in front of a shrine containing a platter of their estrogen pills and ended with a Karaoke version of Neil Diamond’s song “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon.” Another piece, Ritual of a Girl, was performed for the first time in LA in the summer of 2022, and at the Milwaukee art space, Underscore, the same year, and for the third time in LA in spring of 2023. In it, Vaughan recites a line of their poetry repeatedly while encouraging the audience to join in until it becomes a chant. Then, the artist begins to sing on top of the audience’s chanting. During the performance, the artist invites guests to approach and “exchange love with them” by dipping hands in a bowl of glitter, rubbing it on Vaughan, and vice versa.
Vaughan is also moving more into video, perhaps an inevitable temptation for any artist who relocates to LA. Their digital video Doll’s Night, 2023, depicts a group of friends gathered for a DIY spa night. They are hanging out together in a living room, laughing, painting toenails, their faces covered in what appears to be avocado facial masks, towels wrapped around their bodies as well as on their heads, turban-style. Vaughan appreciates how the moving image breaks the plane of a two-dimensional photograph and hopes that these moving images create a more inclusive experience for the audience, inviting us into the idealized, fantastical world that eliminates the exclusions they wish to break down.
In a world where straight, cisgender romantic and familial relationships continue to take center stage, Vaughan centers and celebrates non-sexual forms of love and affection. Through Vaughan’s photos, poetry, and performances, viewers experience the caring moments of platonic companionship that are the basis for human connection. Their work challenges the dichotomies and hierarchies of heteronormative love and highlights the importance of the communities we create and the natural environments we inhabit. Vaughan’s genius lies in the way their images gently educate some viewers about unconscious oppression, by critiquing unchecked privilege, while simultaneously telling delightfully queer platonic love stories, and showcasing a side of human connection that often goes unnoticed. Ultimately, Vaughan’s images elevate and celebrate the deep love of queer “families of choice” that have sustained members of the LGBTQ+ community since before Stonewall.
View their work at https://www.vaughanlarsen.com
Karin Wolf is an arts administrator, freelance arts writer, and consultant. She likes to get deep and try to understand complex art, people, and ideas. Writing about them is her favorite way to do so. She has a M.S. in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and undergraduate degrees in History, History of Cultures, and Afro-American History.