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Frieze New York 2023

Frieze Artadia Prize-winner Jessica Vaughn Rethinks the American Landscape

A major new commission at Frieze New York 2023 utilizes failed letters to trace the histories, brutalities and inequalities encoded in its terrain

BY Folasade Ologundudu in Frieze New York , Frieze Week Magazine | 15 MAY 23
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‘How do we live, breathe, operate and situate ourselves in the world?’ artist Jessica Vaughn asks during our recent conversation, ahead of her upcoming commission at Frieze New York for the Frieze Artadia Prize, to which the idea of situating — ‘to place in a site, situation, context, or category: locate’, as defined by Merriam-Webster — is key.

Jessica Vaughn
Jessica Vaughn in her studio in New York, 2023; photograph: Fumi Nagasaki

Founded in 1999, Artadia is a grant-giving body, defining its mission as supporting artists at pivotal moments in their practice. Reaching artists throughout the US, Artadia has awarded over US$6 million in unrestricted funds to nearly four hundred artists over the past two decades: in smaller and larger art hubs across the US. In 2018, the Brooklyn-based Vaughn was one such recipient, awarded US$10,000 in unrestricted funds, which she used to conceive of new projects and pay for studio space in New York City. In 2022 she was invited, along with all other New York area artists who had previously received Artadia funds, to submit proposals for a work to be realised at Frieze New York for the Frieze Artadia Prize. Vaughn’s winning entry was selected by a pair of external jurors: Sohrab Mohebbi, Director of New York’s Sculpture Center and the Director of Miami’s Perez Art Museum, Franklin Sirmans.

Though it constitutes a new partnership between Frieze and Artadia, the Prize continues a tradition of commissions awarded to artists at Frieze New York, including Lauren Halsey in 2019 — whose new work for the Roof Garden Commission at the Met will be on view during Frieze Week and, in 2018, Kapwani Kiwanga, who will represent Canada at next year’s Venice Biennale. Vaughn’s work explores the systems that shape our lives, inquiring into the social fabric of America to reimagine the ways its products are saturated with cultural histories. For Vaughn, the seeming mundanity of even the most everyday objects holds the potential to reveal profound meaning. Materiality is critical. Her practice often transforms and repurposes existing, mass-produced objects, using the commonplace to create richly layered works that reflect the complexities of place, production and use. ‘When I start to use a material, I begin from the point of trying to understand it in a social and historical context,’ she tells me.

Jessica Vaughn, Envelope
Jessica Vaughn, The Internet of Things, 2020-2023. Digital latex inkjet prints on fabric. Courtesy of the artist

The impetus for Vaughn’s Frieze Artadia Prize commission began during the COVID-19 pandemic. As the pandemic spread, the conditions of late capitalism were exacerbated; economic inequalities increased and racially motivated attacks by both the state and citizenry broke out, causing worldwide outrage. At the same time, with so many in-person services not working, reliance on postal services increased.

Beginning during the pandemic and lasting until this year, Vaughn sent letters via the US postal service to a selection of locations, marking sites of ‘leisure commerce and places where acts of violence occurred,’ she says. She used security envelopes, since, as she explains, ‘the interiors of those envelopes are synonymous with debit and credit in the US.’ Enclosing a generic message inside, Vaughn marked the envelopes with intentionally incorrect information—a wrong number or slight spelling discrepancy—so the mailed letters would be subsequently sent back. The letters returned to Vaughn had accumulated numerous handwritten and digital markings, revealing locations they had passed through on their journey through the infrastructure of the postal system: ‘Residual traces,’ she says, ‘aligning past, present, and future.’ These traces are captured in over 30 images of the returned envelopes, which Vaughn then printed digitally onto strips of linen and canvas, assembled at the Shed for Frieze New York 2023 in the form of the final work.

The format of these large-scale works—each printed strip is nearly two and a half meters long—hung above eye level across two walls, recall aspects of traditional landscape painting, a genre in America typically made by and for white males, depicting the nation’s land in terms of economic prosperity and wealth extraction. Vaughn instead reframes the American landscape, mapping sites from Walt Disney World, Prospect Park, offices in Silicon Valley, malls and the gated community in Sanford, Florida, where Trayvon Martin was murdered in 2012.

Jessica Vaughn
Jessica Vaughn, The Internet of Things, 2020-2023. Digital latex inkjet prints on fabric. Courtesy of the artist

‘I was interested in all of these sites, which when considered together, constitute a conceptual landscape that reorients how American life is pictured, felt and structured,’ Vaughn explains. While her conceptual landscape is one soaked in persistent violence—it includes the sites of public acts of brutality such as the Pottawatomie massacre of 1856 and the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965—it deliberately also includes sites associated with leisure and commerce as well: a combination that is at once repulsive, yet frighteningly familiar to citizens today.

Vaughn’s piece reflects not only on our collective history (the power to establish post offices was enshrined in the constitution, and the mail's scope was discussed by the founding fathers), but also the present moment. Shining a light on the polarising experiences of what it means to live in a society marred by financial exploitation, violence, racial inequality and a hypocrisy that so often turns a blind eye to its own inequities, the America she maps is also a place where we can contend with precisely these problems. 

This article first appeared in Frieze Week, May 2023 under the headline ‘Posting Up’


A writer and multidisciplinary artist. Her writing includes art criticism, profiles, essays and interviews. She is the founder of Light Work, a creative platform rooted at the intersection of art, education and culture.