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Vaughn Spann’s New Paintings Remind Us to Make Time for Healing

Portrait of Vaughn Spann. © Vaughn Spann. Courtesy of the artist and Almine Rech.

Portrait of Vaughn Spann. © Vaughn Spann. Courtesy of the artist and Almine Rech.

Over the past few years, has cemented his place as a star among contemporary artists to watch. His large, explosive paintings, like The exchange (north star) (2020) and Golden Valley (2019), address themes ranging from self-care and personal preservation to sociopolitical issues like racial injustice. Spann’s work illuminates the delicate intersections of art, activism, and social practice within our everyday, contemporary lives. His ability to weave elements from his life into a larger social fabric allows for a range of viewers to deeply feel and connect with his work.
In his latest exhibition, “Smoke Signals,” up through October 10th at Almine Rech in Brussels, Spann builds upon some concepts addressed in his previous bodies of work, like self-identity and memory. In a recent interview, the artist told me it’s important to him that his work be understood as ongoing, as he is constantly adding to and complicating the topics he explores. The exhibition brings together some of Spann’s 2019 mixed-media paintings, as well as a selection of new abstract works that have not yet been shown.
Vaughn Spann, installation view of “Smoke Signals” at Almine Rech, Brussels, 2020. © Vaughn Spann. Photo by Hugard & Vanoverschelde. Courtesy of the artist and Almine Rech.

Vaughn Spann, installation view of “Smoke Signals” at Almine Rech, Brussels, 2020. © Vaughn Spann. Photo by Hugard & Vanoverschelde. Courtesy of the artist and Almine Rech.

Spann, a Florida native, earned his BFA from Rutgers University in 2014, then an MFA from Yale School of Art in 2018. In the years since, he has experienced a meteoric rise. Now based in Newark, New Jersey, Spann has garnered the attention of collectors for his distinctive style. In January 2020, Spann opened his first exhibition with Almine Rech in New York, “The Heat Lets us Know We’re Alive,” which received critical acclaim. His work is included in collections at institutions including the Peréz Art Museum Miami, the High Museum of Art, and the Rubell Museum.
In addition to his mixed-media paintings, Spann is widely known for his figurative work, including pieces like Basking in the wind and Parisian Girls (both 2019), which feature vibrantly dressed, double-headed figures. “Historically, I’ve been oscillating between both abstraction and figuration,” Spann said. “With my practice, in general, I’ve been thinking about what output looks like in relationship to that and how to control the current conceptual side and the context in which those two sides of my practice sort of engage one another.”
“Smoke Signals” offers a prescient reflection on the value of life, connection, and empathy at a time when the whole world continues to navigate distress from the COVID-19 pandemic, environmental crises, racial violence, and more. Spann noted that, to a degree, the work in the show presents a metaphor for the repetitive, cyclical nature of life that we’ve grown accustomed to since the beginning of the pandemic. The paintings mimic the patterns of our daily lives and serve as a reminder to embrace the sensuality of even the most quotidian of tasks.
Spherical forms show up in Spann’s abstract works, like Soul of a nation (homage) and Tango (both 2019), which feature glossy bulbous shapes in a deep red hue. The glistening circles appear to almost peek out from the edges of the canvases, cushioned by linear borders. The exhibition also features Fleeting memories and lasting moments (2019), a 15-foot-long mixed-media diptych which shows another ruby-colored circle floating atop blue blobs.
“A circle is a universal symbol,” Spann said. “When we think about the circle, we think about these ideas around wholeness and eternity and cycles. Right now, as it relates to COVID, you know, there’s no perfect metaphor. I was thinking about the ways in which things come back in rotation, the beginning of the day, the passing of the day, how things get really blurry.”
Spann said that the pandemic has encouraged him to take a newfound agency over his time and to connect more with nature. He’s been spending more of his day outside, carving out time to breathe in fresh air and look up at the stars. His new works became a way to cope with the grave and continuous losses that people around the world have experienced over the past few months.
Vaughn Spann, installation view of “Smoke Signals” at Almine Rech, Brussels, 2020. © Vaughn Spann. Photo by Hugard & Vanoverschelde. Courtesy of the artist and Almine Rech.

Vaughn Spann, installation view of “Smoke Signals” at Almine Rech, Brussels, 2020. © Vaughn Spann. Photo by Hugard & Vanoverschelde. Courtesy of the artist and Almine Rech.

The exhibition also features works that grapple with the complex political and social issues of our American society. Large-scale works like Vanquish and Rover (both 2020) show a large X painted boldly against a background bursting with rich blues and pinks. These paintings, some of which are part of an ongoing series titled “Marked Man,” draw on the artist’s personal experience being stopped and frisked by the police when he was in college. Spann also reflects on the similar experiences of countless others who’ve been victims of racial profiling. Such works feel especially relevant, given recent events and conversations surrounding race relations in the United States.
Spann said that the paintings draw on the “intensity of that moment being profiled,” or what he calls being “marked.” He added, “The ‘Marked Man’ series is a reminder to snap back into reality—allowing me to have that moment of self-care and introspection, but then also grounding myself in this reality.”
Though deeply personal, the work in Spann’s latest exhibition maintains a sense of universality. His internal self-exploration beckons viewers into the same spirit of mindfulness that may allow all of us to experience the world around us more fully. Spann said that the brutal reality over the past few months has reminded him to cherish life and his loved ones more profoundly.
“For me, it’s [about] finding moments for healing, but also finding moments to snap back into reality and understand the challenges that are ahead of us,” Spann said. “Just having that balance and duality in which we come to terms with our own humanity.”
Daria Harper
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated that Spann is based in New Haven, Connecticut. The artist is currently based in Newark, New Jersey.