Critics’ Picks

  • View of “50 States: Louisiana,” 2020. Photo: Paul Hester.

    View of “50 States: Louisiana,” 2020. Photo: Paul Hester.

    Nick Vaughan and Jake Margolin

    DiverseWorks
    3400 Main Street
    February 29–April 18, 2020

    An immersive, abstract video landscape shows droplets of indigo dye periodically dispersing in water, blossoming into hypnotically morphing, pendulous chandeliers. They model the osmotic way viewers absorb this exhibition’s central narrative, delivered by Nick Vaughan and Jake Margolin via an audio recording that permeates the gallery, which is otherwise filled with additional aquatic vignettes filmed off the Gulf Coast of New Orleans and on Dauphin Island, Alabama. Throughout “50 States: Louisiana,” the sixth iteration of the artists’ ongoing endeavor to create multimedia installations that unearth submerged queer histories in every state, indigo leads the way to Louisiana’s past, serving as medium, support, commodity, problem, specter, and inspiration.

    The story begins with Captain Beauchamp, an eighteenth-century French colonist who wrecked his indigo-bearing vessel, the Bellone (which, notably, sounds like bel homme), off Dauphin Island while pursuing his romance with a cabin boy. Centuries later, the artists recount, African American and Italian American longshoremen opened the doors of their union halls to masquerade balls organized by New Orleans’s first gay krewes, making possible some of the first public queer gatherings in 1960s Louisiana. Punctuating these anecdotes are vivid, step-by-step explanations of how indigo dye was cultivated and fermented, in Beauchamp’s time, by enslaved Africans on plantations along the Gulf Coast. A jar of the pungent stuff illustrates the process’s results.

    Stretched across the gallery at a perilous tilt are three indigo-dyed mainsails, dramatic and ambivalent anti-monuments to this complex history. Deep into their wide-ranging audio tour, Vaughan and Margolin fantasize about using the sails to make a Mardi Gras pilgrimage to Dauphin Island to memorialize the dockworkers’ transformative generosity—a testament to how the continuous, fluid motion of allyship among minoritized communities is as much dyed into the fabric of American culture as queer life itself.