Devin King in Conversation with Stephen Lapthisophon

March 9, 2010 · Print This Article

Bad at Sports would like to welcome Devin King as our latest guest blogger. “Devin King lives and works in Chicago. His first book of poetry, CLOPS, is out from the Green Lantern Press and the newest production of his serial opera, Dancing Young Men From High Windows, was part of the 2010 Rhino Theater Festival.”

Before Stephen Lapthisophon moved to Dallas in 2008, he worked and taught in Chicago for over 25 years. He’s represented in Dallas by The Conduit Gallery, has shown work recently in San Antonio at Unit B, will be doing an installation soon for The Henderson Art Project and currently teaches art and art history at The University of Texas at Arlington. I spoke with him over a few weeks last summer about his installation practice.

Through this, I’ve been interested in how his installations, paintings, and text/image essays effectively erased old conceptions of relationships between objects and their histories. As you’ll see, we spend a bunch of time trying to nail down exactly what he’s getting at. Lapthisophon says its an attempt to rethink our surroundings. I’m not sure we ever answered the question.

In Graham Harman’s recent book on the French sociologist of science Bruno Latour (Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics), Harman describes Latour’s philosophy as “play[ing] out amidst microbes, tape recorders, windmills, apples, and any real or unreal actors that one might imagine.” Moreover, Harman continues, “Latour has no real interest in the pathos of depth: though his actors can always surprise us, these surprises always emerge at the surface of the world, not from some veiled underworld ruled by the shades of [philosophers, theologians, or poets.]” Against Harman’s description of Latour, Lapthisophon welcomes the irrational and poetic in our own responses to his work–Lapthosophon’s work with disjunctive elements reinforces Latour’s image of actors (be they objects, ideas, pictures, or personas) and their surprising emergence at the surface of a world of shifting relations.

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The first thing I wanted to talk about was arrangement. You have an intuitive installation technique: you start with a small number of found objects/photocopies and build out into more materials–finding resonances through addition.

I think this is the result of an interest in limits and boundaries between art and everyday life experiences. I enjoy testing the tolerance level of a situation to see how much or how little can be added or changed while still living in the world of art. It is very much process oriented and, I hope, an open process–embracing flux and change: an open process reliant on intuition and chance operations. However, the method of working additively is neither sequential nor additive itself. I am guided by willful irrationality, chance, accident and mistake. I want to challenge accepted ideas concerning causality and intention.

Can you talk a bit about your idea of a “tolerance level of a situation” and how it manifests in your installations?

What comes to mind first is an unorthodox use of materials: although there is certainly a historical precedent (Arte Povera for example), I think my recent use of food in the art work–potatoes and apples in installations; salt, coffee, cocoa, saffron and bacon fat mixed with dry pigment in the drawings–challenge notions of permanence, effort, craft and process. Use of unorthodox materials asks the viewer to examine their notions of how art should be made as opposed to how it can be made. The commodity status of a work of art is questioned by works which threaten to disintegrate. Materials that are so obviously humble and everyday contrast with high tech impulses of much current art making. I am asking the audience to see how little can be used to create a work of art to wear away at a defense mechanism that resists what one sees all the time. For example, a drawing with my name written/ drawn /printed in saffron ink is a simple slight gesture but one with the poetic potential in its linguistic force the viewer’s internal enunciation of: “a signature in saffron.”

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I know that sounds horribly banal but rethinking can be powerful. And any real appreciation of the everyday can also be unsettling. But I also want to imply a bit of a quotation method by asking someone to rethink through another work of art or cultural moment.

Speaking of quotation, can you talk a bit about your use of music in your work?

Music functions in a number of ways in my work. There are moments when I am hoping to stretch my ideas to the places where other artists/ musicians or composers have gone and given me a kind of permission to challenge myself. Anthony Braxton’s irrational logic, Elliot Carter’s elegant stubbornness, Chaka Khan’s willingness to balance ugliness and beauty, Kanye West’s audacity, all that pretty Sonic Youth noise, etc. Music also serves as a point of departure to mark a cultural moment as shared history and intersection–pop songs in particular. In Amanuensis (I Hear a Symphony) I used the Supremes song “I Hear a Symphony” to enact the play of presence and absence that was the subject of the installation. I broke up and distorted the song into its constituent parts focusing on the lyrics repeated “whenever you’re near…” In My Tradition, My Heritage My Voice Ornette Coleman’s “Free Jazz” played as part of the installation to tie the work of Dan Flavin and his quotation portraits of Russian Constructivist art with my own improvisatory impulses. The insertion of musical events acts as collage but a temporal pasting of an extra-contextual element.

Music seems so often used as backdrop-or, if not backdrop, as you said “extra-contextual”–how does one push beyond this? How do you see others pushing beyond this?

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I think of the use of music as an element similar to a collage element–integral to the whole piece. It is overlaid or pieced into or pasted over. I hope it acts not as atmosphere but within the environment, which can be partially avoided by choosing something disjunctive–something that fights against its surroundings rather than “blends” in…this is different from welcoming noise and distinguishing music from sound and the use of sound pieces in installations. If disjunctive elements are orchestrated with care, one element is not necessarily made into the primary focus with everything else as background. Just because the individual elements are intended to be integrated with friction does not mean that a foreground/ background situation is established. One can still work against hierarchy…

That’s sort of what I mean–with everything “at the same level,” wouldn’t it all become either ambiance or full aggression?

Well, I think what I am having problems with/resisting is the idea of “things at the same level” because I think intrinsically some elements will carry a different weight or purpose. Already the combination of texts (and different types of texts) and other varieties of materials creates a difficult space of operation. For me, it is really a question of textures–actual and implied. It is not so much that sound and/or music provides a background as much it provides a different set of associations and textures. To a certain extent, installation as a form of activity already acts in a disjunctive manner displacing one world from another: where does the “real” world end and the art experience begin? In a recent installation (without sound) I combined cardboard, a crutch, long functional and useless highly colored electrical cords, clamp lights, white and colored bulbs, salt, apples, paper, signs, text, a walker, a crutch, a bright green ramp, hangers, tape and canned pineapples. All of these disparate materials were placed in a display window setting in a public urban space. I don’t think that it would be easily thought that these things presented themselves all at the same level. Their manifestation in a public setting also charged the appearance with discomfort by being so purposeless while containing so many purposeful things.

I think I operate somewhat pragmatically in some ways: I assume that salt, or and apple, or a piece of cardboard or a walker or an electrical cord will carry a different set of associations–different weights–and that once the process of interpretation or resistance to interpretation is initiated, then a certain kind of self-questioning might take place–a questioning of questioning. I think that when types of elements carry certain heterogeneities and varying textures that their status as stable carriers of meaning begins to wobble a bit–maybe a new meaning producing process (welcoming the irrational or poetic) takes place?

It seems to me that that phrase turns on “Maybe” in “Maybe a new meaning…takes place.”  Your installations and objects are the first step to asking new questions, but what do those questions become? Maybe a way to ask the question differently: coming upon your signature signed in saffron, what question do you ask yourself when you see it outside of your gesture?

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I appreciate your struggle and the work to get to the place where the question begins. It all seems to be a question of paths to other paths. Regarding the general question of questions I think there is an impulse to want to get a reader/ viewer to a place where the conclusion is simply–like the Gershwin-”It ain’t necessarily so…” More specifically regarding the saffron signature I have to start with the notion that a neutral viewer does not even know that the letters spell my name. And, so–the first step is a reading of a drawing–already a treacherous path as one first expects to “look at” a drawing and not read it. And then it designates not much. A name perhaps but not necessarily so….

So then the opposite would be true regarding your insertion of photos into your texts? One assumes the reader would not be as familiar with the photo as the easier-to-follow text?

I see what you are thinking but as usual) I try to have that relationship be a bit unstable–by that I mean combining images or photographs that might be more familiar with texts that seem to be unlikely combinations …or, texts that are difficult in some way. Or photos that are not easily recognized with more plain, uninflected texts or borrowed texts. I want–and this is difficult–to avoid the caption/image apparatus if possible. It is an engagement with the play of the supplement …

You seem hesitant not only to reduce your work to one single idea or object, but also hesitant to reduce your work to a relationship (or new relationship?) between ideas, except that, “these ideas and their relationships must be unstable.” If I may pull the old schoolboy logic out of the hat–wouldn’t this instability also apply to apply to the idea of “instability”? I don’t ask this as a “gotcha” but only because I sense something in your work that, while not transcendent in any way, at least attempts a critical response or a push past its own methods.

I understand and do not take it as a tricky question. But I don’t think there is a solution to that one– Yes, to a certain extent the unstable needs to be made either stable or not. And then is it unstable? I guess I am just trying to keep the relationship between the relationships and their intersecting ways of operating as varied and not predictable. Or at least I hope to be critical with respect to the ways that audiences might expect to see one element as privileged over another. There is no perfect audience or assumptions I can make with certainty but, for me, part of being an artist is reading the world into which my work arrives and to be aware of how current audience expectations and context is constructed. If I have some rudimentary reading of the situation then I can better see how to begin to introduce an instability. There is not perfect reading but it is all a process and the initiation of the dialogue is part of the process…

One Response to “Devin King in Conversation with Stephen Lapthisophon”

  1. [...] King, author of the not-yet-officially released Green Lantern Press book, CLOPS, published an interview he conducted with Stephen Lapthisophon on badatsports. What follows is the [...]

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