stephen lapthisophon coffee, seasonal fruit, root vegetables, and “Selected Poems”
October 27, 2013–March 30, 2014
The work of Stephen Lapthisophon embraces the mistake, the accidental, and the unexpected as they relate to process, mark making, and memory. In his installations and collaged works on paper, he rejects ideas of high polish and refined craftsmanship in favor of humble materials, the experiences of daily life, and a chaotic, de-skilled aesthetic that is open to chance. His installations appear cluttered, with their unruly extension cords and found objects that intentionally disrupt space, making it difficult or uncomfortable for viewers to maneuver; however, despite the haphazard appearance of his work, there are no superfluous elements. These objects, much like the ubiquitous text throughout Lapthisophon’s work, are carefully selected for their datedness, and they function as a form of quotation, pointing to past moments or literary or philosophical references. Issues of accessibility and meaning are equally contested in Lapthisophon’s densely layered works, blurring the lines between art and the everyday. Lapthisophon currently lives and works in Dallas, but he spent his formative years growing up in Houston. He moved to Austin for his BFA, and then on to Chicago, where he attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and received his MFA in 1979. After further study at Northwestern University in comparative literature and theory, Lapthisophon exhibited widely, making a name for himself in Chicago over the next thirty years. He first visited Dallas in 2002 to take part in an artist residency at South Side on Lamar, and moved here permanently in 2007. Since 2008, he has held a senior lecturer position in the Department of Art and Art History at the University of Texas at Arlington, where he has been an influential mentor to an emerging generation of North Texas artists. For his current installation at the Dallas Museum of Art, the artist’s first U.S. solo museum exhibition, Lapthisophon has created a space reminiscent of his studio, in which walls obscure the space and appear layered, similar to his collage technique. While several works are framed, much of the work in the exhibition is intentionally left bare or open to the elements, simply being pinned to the walls. The walls have been left unfinished, with their wooden beams and support structures exposed. In one room, the walls do not extend to the ceiling, allowing for an airiness that extends beyond the exhibition space and is indicative of the artist’s process: art cannot be separated from daily life—it must be left open to influences from within and without. This openness is readily apparent in the artist’s choice of materials, which is as likely to include house paint as it is ingredients from the pantry. The work Relic (2013) consists of house paint, gold-pigmented bacon fat, ink, coffee, and coffee grounds on paper. Divided into quadrants by a cruciform shape of red and green tape and gold pigment on a white ground, this work on paper is rich with hazy layers of amorphous color, obscured text, and particulate matter. While these materials are unorthodox in a fine-art context, they are an integral part of Lapthisophon’s process and overall worldview. According to the artist, the use of such ephemeral materials is intended to “challenge notions of permanence, effort, craft, and process.” 1 The pigmented bacon fat and coffee grounds conjure notions of cooking and other quotidian experiences that question the “proper” recipe for distinguishing between high and low culture. For Lapthisophon—all things being equal—these stains of food, dirt, and grime allude as much to the abstract forms and high-minded ideals of modernist art as they do to the art of cooking and the values of slow-food culture.
Lapthisophon’s use of foodstuffs in his installations calls on our senses, ranging from the tactile nature of eggshells and coffee grounds, to the olfactory qualities of pigments infused with turmeric, saffron, and sprigs of rosemary. The artist’s interest in a full-sensory experience of art relates back to his loss of sight in the early 1990s, resulting from an optic nerve disease. Now legally blind, Lapthisophon’s work goes beyond the typical realm of the visual and challenges us to experience art in complex, thought-provoking ways, encouraging viewers to think of radically different possibilities for artistic production. Regarding his choice of medium, Lapthisophon insists that the “[u]se of unorthodox materials asks the viewer to examine their notions of how art should be made as opposed to how it can be made.” 2 By employing food materials, Lapthisophon’s work is imbued with a palpable material presence that is at once fragile and ephemeral. There is a willingness on the part of the artist to openly embrace chance and mistake, as evidenced by the accidental nature of his gestural mark making. Lapthisophon’s drawings function as a way to mark one’s presence in the world—the here and now—while also harkening back to the past through its residual trace. For the artist, the present is irrevocably tied to the past, much like a stain, which fades over time but remains a constant reminder, suffusing the present with marks of what came before. Another reoccurring motif in Lapthisophon’s work is his use of text and quotation to layer meaning in his drawings. These texts range from the most elementary building blocks of language, “ABCD” in the work Stencil (2013), to complex philosophical texts from Walter Benjamin, Martin Heidegger, Vladimir Lenin, and Karl Marx. Oftentimes inverted, written backwards, or simply illegible, text and language are used in Lapthisophon’s work to layer references that point the viewer elsewhere in the search for meaning. As the artist explains, text is “the element that makes certain media unstable . . . text in visual works of art chips away at the solid place where we see a work of art as self-contained and whole and moves it to an in between place—an object without a home.”3 This instability, which also exists on a material level in Lapthisophon’s work, is crucial to his creative process and the elusiveness of meaning he desires. In Menu (2013), the artist has inverted a roughly scrawled menu executed in sienna chalk and water on black paper in which the words “antipasti,” “primi,” and “carni” can be read. This provides just enough information to point the viewer to its country of origin—Italy—and its vibrant food culture. This drawing is joined by others, which begin to form a constellation of references—a map of Rome soiled by a rotten potato, a black-and-white drawing of the numbers “1945,” a 2012 work titled The Teariness of Midday (for Lucio Fontana)—all of which vaguely hover around a specific time and place and art movement, namely the Italian postwar avant-garde. These allusions help guide the viewer from one work to the next, piecing together disparate scraps of information—such as artist Lucio Fontana’s work or the formal similarities some of Lapthisophon’s drawings share with the Italian painter’s series Concetto Spaziale (Spatial Concept)—to form a nexus of interrelated references. While Lapthisophon uses text to destabilize and “chip away” at any singular reading of his work, his use of appropriated text in his art goes further in articulating his view of history. As the artist explains:
The use of quotation is intended to draw attention to acts, events and figures from the past and record our distance from the quoted event. This critical act is intended to recontextualize and redirect attention away from our moment. At present we are in an era that attempts to disavow history and its force. I hope to shift that drive and halt the rush to an uncertain past by making work that involve[s] a slow, careful reading and the modest materials.4 This form of quotation can be found in Lapthisophon’s works on paper as well as in extended quotes he paints directly on the exhibition walls as murals. Lapthisophon’s relationship with history is not nostalgic. Instead it is anachronistic and deeply informed by the thinking of the German-Jewish critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin (1892–1940). According to Benjamin, it is necessary to “brush history against the grain” in order to recognize that the present has the capacity to redeem traces of the past, and in doing so, reclaim the past as a concern of the present. Instead of the past giving rise to the future, Benjamin argued, conversely, that it was the present that gave rise to the past. Lapthisophon’s work actively participates in this radical reorganization of history in an attempt to rescue the past, reclaiming and rearticulating it for the benefit of the present. The work of Stephen Lapthisophon is a heady mix of high and low—the historical and the ephemeral, philosophy and food, art and everyday life. Viewers are charged with the uneasy task of reconciling these disparate elements into a meaningful whole; however, Lapthisophon’s aim is to move beyond these dialectical oppositions, to arrive at an understanding that both past and present, and art and daily life, are inextricably linked to one another. Ultimately, it is only when we are open to such realizations that history can become an urgent concern for the present, and meaning can be gleaned from the humblest of materials. Gabriel Ritter The Nancy and Tim Hanley Assistant Curator of Contemporary Art Dallas Museum of Art
Notes 1. King, “Conversation with Stephen Lapthisophon” (blog). 2. Ibid. 3. Picard, “Methodical Handprints” (blog). 4. Stephen Lapthisophon, e-mail message to author, April 21, 2013.
Biography Stephen Lapthisophon was born in Elkins, West Virginia, in 1956 and currently lives and works in Dallas. He received his MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1979 and his BFA from the University of Texas at Austin in 1977. Solo exhibitions of his work include presentations at Actual Size, Los Angeles (2013); A Slender Gamut, New York (2012); Hyde Park Art Center, Chicago (2011); El Escaparate, Barcelona (2009); and Zagreus Projekt, Berlin (2008). He has participated in group exhibitions, including Variations on Theme: Contemporary Art 1950s–Present, Dallas Museum of Art (2012); Cafe, SHOW Studio, London (2011); Archival Impulse, Gallery 400, University of Illinois at Chicago (2011); Fine Words Butter No Cabbage, Hyde Park Art Center, Chicago (2004); and The Public Art Show, High Museum of Art, Atlanta (1986). He is currently a senior lecturer in art and art history at the University of Texas at Arlington.
1. Menu, 2013, water and chalk on paper, 35 x 23 in.
2. Twig, 2013, oil stick, spray paint, coffee grounds, and pencil on paper with rosemary, 42 Â˝ x 36 in.
3. Egg, 2013, tracing paper, eggshell, and glue on newsprint, on cardboard, 36 x 24 x 1 in.
4. Relic, 2013, house paint, gold-pigmented bacon fat, ink, coffee, and coffee grounds on paper, 30 x 22 in.
5. Stencil, 2013, spray paint, oil stick, ink, pigmented bacon fat, and pencil on paper, 59 x 30 in.
Bibliography Artner, Alan G. “Lapthisophon’s Soundscapes.” Chicago Tribune, September 3, 2004. Bouchard, Kevin. Review of Writing Art Cinema 1977–2007, on view at Conduit Gallery, Dallas, Texas, Fall 2007. Art Lies 57 (Spring 2008). Brettell, Richard. Stephen Lapthisophon and the Gesture. Glen Ellyn, IL: College of DuPage, 2004. Exhibition catalog. Durant McGurren, Diane. “I, Too, Must Understand; An Interview with Artist Stephen Lapthisophon.” Sojourn Journal of the Arts 21 (2008): 109–22. Elliott, David. “Rube Goldberg Meets Spike Jones.” Art News 80, no. 9 (November 1981): 181. Grigely, Joseph. “Beautiful Progress to Nowhere.” Parallel Lines (January 2012). http://www.paral lellinesjournal.com/article-beautiful-progress- nowhere.html. Hixson, Kathryn. Review of With Reasonable Accommodation, on view at Gallery 400, Chicago, Illinois, October 29–November 9, 2002. Frieze 74 (April 2003): 89–90. King, Devin. “Devin King in Conversation with Stephen Lapthisophon,” Bad at Sports (blog). http:// badatsports.com/2010/interview-devin-king-withstephen-lapthisophon/. Lapthisophon, Stephen. Writing Art Cinema 1988–2010. Chicago: The Green Lantern Press, 2011. Lapthisophon, Stephen. Hotel Terminus. Chicago: WhiteWalls, Inc., 1999. Lima, Benjamin. Review of Spelling Lesson, on view at Conduit Gallery, Dallas, Texas, January 8–February 12, 2011. Artforum online, January 2011. http://www. artforum.com/archive/id=27428. Morse, Annie. Exhibition essay for Static, on view at Conduit Gallery, Dallas, Texas, 2003. Picard, Caroline. “Methodical Handprints: An Interview with Stephen Lapthisophon,” Bad at Sports (blog). http://badatsports.com/2011/methodical-hand prints-an-interview-with-stephen-lapthisophon/. Rickey, Carrie. “Chicago.” Art in America 67, no. 4 (July/ August 1979): 47–56. Simblist, Noah. “Conspicuous Production: The First Two Years of the UTD/SouthSide Artist Residency,” Art Lies 48 (Fall 2005): 98–99. Wainwright, Lisa. “Found Objects in the Art of Stephen Lapthisophon.” Chicago: University of Illinois at Chicago, 2002. Exhibition essay. Wolfe, Ginger. “Stephen Lapthisophon: Authenticity and Other Critical Engagements.” Berlin, Germany: Kunstverein INGAN, 2005. Brochure. Yood, James. Review of Défense d’Afficher, on view at TBA Exhibition Space, Chicago, Illinois, January 2000. Artforum 38, no. 8 (April 2000): 145–46.
Concentrations 56: Stephen Lapthisophon—coffee, seasonal fruit, root vegetables, and “Selected Poems” is organized by the Dallas Museum of Art. The presentation is made possible by TWO X TWO for AIDS and Art, an annual fundraising event that jointly benefits amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research and the Dallas Museum of Art, and by the Contemporary Art Initiative through the gifts of Arlene and John Dayton, Claire Dewar, Jennifer and John Eagle, Amy and Vernon Faulconer, Kenny Goss, Tim Hanley, Julie and Ed Hawes, Marguerite Steed Hoffman, The Karpidas Foundation, Cynthia and Forrest Miller, Janelle and Alden Pinnell, Allen and Kelli Questrom, Cindy and Howard Rachofsky, Catherine and Will Rose, Deedie and Rusty Rose, Jan and Jim Showers, Gayle and Paul Stoffel, and Sharon and Michael Young. Air transportation provided by American Airlines. The Dallas Museum of Art is supported, in part, by the generosity of DMA Partners and donors, the citizens of Dallas through the City of Dallas Office of Cultural Affairs, and the Texas Commission on the Arts.
All works are courtesy of the artist and © Stephen Lapthisophon.