Once a resident of Chicago, Stephen Lapthisophon has since moved to Texas where he continues to write and make work while teaching at the University of Texas at Arlington. His ties to Chicago remain strong–what is most recently evidenced by his exhibit, The Construction of a National Identity at the Hyde Park Art Center. Running concurrently in Dallas, Stephen exhibited a second body of work, Spelling Lesson, at Conduit Gallery. In both exhibits he investigates the source and strategies of identity, integrating text and found materials. Recently I had a chance to ask him some questions about his work–Devin, Stephen and I have been working together over the last several months compiling a series of Stephen’s essays for The Green Lantern Press. In the midst of that process, I did not steal an opportunity to ask him about his visual work–what continues to play such a prominent role in his life. The more I learned about his practice, scouring through older publications, (Whitewalls published Hotel Terminus in 1999, as well as an artist catalogue, Writing Art Cinema 1977-2007 ) the more I began to wonder how he negotiates his own identity as an artist, particularly when his work seems so porous. It’s a strange idea, I’ll admit, to think of an art practice as being porous. What I mean is that Stephen seems to pass through accumulations of objects and ideas, undeterred by the cultural status of those materials (whether based in popular culture, day-to-day banalities or philosophy). He collects certain elements, one-liners and imagery, in order to then recompile those remnants through his own lens. Throughout everything he maintains a steady, personable voice. His work is warm, messy, I’d even say generous in its accessibility and boasts a consistent character–which of course points back to identity.
Caroline Picard: At your Conduit Gallery show, “Spelling Lessons” you address the question of a “signature.” As I understand it, you employ a variety of mediums, as well as text, to undermine/explore the question of a concise artistic identity. Can you talk a little bit about that? And maybe what you think a signature represents? (I’m also interested in this because of your regular incorporation of text, which seems to become it’s own kind of signature…
Stephen Lapthisophon: Yes.
First of all, I have this difficult, hard to spell (and hard to pronounce) last name. So names have been on my mind for a whileâ€”the way that names are not really words but instead serve as markers of a sort. I am interested in the way we mark ourselves, mark our place and mark our moment. I am also interested in drawing. And for me writing is closer to the act of drawing than it is to Painting which carries with it a number of assumptions and heavy background. Drawing is mark making, notation, surface and hand.
Also, as we move away from the hand we move away from a different kind of object. Picture making, works of art are no longer â€œsignedâ€ in the same way as they were in the past. Yet artists persist in making works that carry a recognizable identity, via repeated form. I am aiming for an everydayness of experienceâ€”signing, marking, making a notation, drawing, scratching and spilling.
I am also interested in the signatureâ€™s ability to call into question our thinking about the idea of authenticity. Signatures should not be pre-meditated, forced or over thought. They should just â€œhappen.â€ We expect signatures to be â€œnaturalâ€ and part of our selfhood. Odd then, that we sign a work of art â€“potentially full of artificial marks? To mark its authenticityâ€¦
CP: Following up on that last question, do you think of “text” as a kind of medium in and of itself? One not necessarily relegated to the page of a book, for instance, but even a free standing element? I suppose another way to ask that question is what is your relationship to text? How does that compare with your relationship to an art object?
SL: I am not sure if text is another medium but it is the element that makes certain media unstable. Is a drawing with text the same as a sign? I mean like a hand painted sign for a yard sale? Is a drawing/ painting with words an agreement, a caption for something elseâ€¦or a list? I think 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.
CP: You have a show, “The Construction of a National Identity” up at The Hyde Park Art Center right now. Here too, you seem to examine traditional ways of locating a self in space and time. On the one hand, it seems like you rely on those traditional mechanisms (i.e. national identity, which relates to place and, even more basic, I think, a kind of “naming” or identification of a particular aspect) and on the other deliberately undermine their integrity (in so far as you point to Paella, for instance, or the idea of hybridity in general). Can you talk a little bit about that tension?
SL: Definitions always fall apart. Either breaking away into tautology or crumbling under the weight iof their own defining terms. We are given many terms with which to define ourselves yet none of them match perfectly. We donâ€™t really add upâ€¦Given the hallway space at HPAC it seemed to make sense to push the transitory, ambulatory nature of identityâ€”and the walking nature of the way that we exchange messages with each other in public. The installation is a poem with recipes written on colored walls or recipes for poems drawn on walls or walls marking overheard pieces of recipes signed by a writer. The food materials used to make the piece (saffron, rice, salt, coffee, olive oil, sesame oil and tea all hold associations with place and are part of our everyday lives. We build our sense of self through the repetition of daily rituals of food and drink and mark the day with words and gesture.
CP: Here too I am interested in how you incorporate those elements into tactile mediums. How do you characterize your relationship to your work–in a physical sense? Like when you’re looking at what you make, in your studio, or in a gallery–even when you first approach materials with an intention to “fashion” them–what is your experience of yourself in those moments?
SL: I want my experience and the audienceâ€™s experience to be of the moment–in process and in flux. An experience of everything around and in the piece. I want the experience to be heightened by a sense of the transitory and fleeting and of the potential for change. Not that the pieces change but that they have changed.Â Materiality is important as it claims or sense of space and makes us aware of our body and all aspects of the sensory world. I use a lot of found objects and like to call into question what makes one object â€œartâ€ while excluding another object from being art. I am drawn to material, older physical objects made by handâ€”objects that contain handmade marks.
CP: When do you find yourself most “the artist”?
SL: I guess I enjoy the making and the time and place when the surprise happens. I am an advocate of the irritation, of mystery and of ambiguity And I need to have aÂ sense of discovery as I return to the work. I like being in the space.
Guest Post by Julia V. Hendrickson
Notes on a Conversation.
Withâ€”Mark Pascale (Curator in the Dept. of Prints & Drawings at the Art Institute of Chicago, and Adjunct Professor of Printmedia at SAIC)
Inâ€”the Prints & Drawings Study Center
Commencedâ€”on Thursday, February 17th, 2011, 4:15â€“5:15pm
â€œItâ€™s a dream job. Itâ€™s great place to work. Even under great pressure, when people are at their most difficult, there is still a lot of love here and we all know it. We give each other a lot of space, thereâ€™s a tremendous amount of collaboration here, and people supporting everybody when they need the support. I think itâ€™s very collegial.â€
â€” Mark Pascale
In a curious corner of the Art Institute, beyond the lions and the ticket booth; through the first gallery on your left (filled, currently, with John Marinâ€™s watercolors); past a large glass door; and adjoining a nondescript long white hallway, lies a room full of natural light and very busy people. Dedicated to public inquiry, the Goldman Study Center in the department of Prints & Drawings is one of this cityâ€™s quiet treasures. Open to the public by appointment only (available to classes in the mornings and to individual researchers in the afternoons), since the 1940s the department has made available over 80,000 works on paper that are part of the Art Instituteâ€™s collection. Staffed by hard-working curators, collection managers, researchers, administrators, and interns (as well as its own paper conservation department), the study center serves as a visual library; it offers the rare opportunity to examine a small selection of major works of art in person, without the distancing of glass or display.
However, one of the most invaluable treasures in Prints & Drawings is not actually on paper. It is, in fact, embodied in a living, breathing, wise-cracking person: a curator, Mark Pascale, who is celebrating his 30th year with the Art Institute. I first knocked on Markâ€™s door over two years ago, armed with the brazen assumption that he would meet with me based on a shared love of comic art and his connection to Ohio (he went to graduate school at Ohio State University). Since then, Mark has proved to be an encyclopedically resourceful, tirelessly supportive, always kind mentor and friend.
While visiting the study room last week, we looked at one of my favorite recent departmental acquisitions, a bequest from the estate of Sylvia Sights: a small collection of envelopes and ephemera illustrated by Edward Gorey (who was born in Chicago in 1925). Sylvia Sights and Gorey were childhood friends and Lakeview neighbors. Gorey attended SAIC for one semester in 1943, and after he left Chicago he wrote to Sights frequently. Many of the envelopes are from his time at Harvard (1946-50), and were often sent under fantastic pseudonyms like â€œChilderic Droolâ€ and addressed to â€œFascia Scorch.â€ You can see more photographs of the collection in an album here.
I asked Mark about print-related shows he is proud of being involved with during his time at the Art Institute. He spoke of the intense research and collaboration that goes into major museum exhibitions:
â€œBeing involved in the Jasper Johns: Gray show [in 2007] was a career changing moment for me. He was an artist that I had admired, as an artist, and I especially had admired his printmaking. It was hugely inspirational and instructive to me. It was a frightening prospect because heâ€™s very judgmental, and he is not known for his generosity. But I was asked to join the team and I did. [â€¦] That experience, working with James [Rondeau] and Douglas [Druick], Harriet Stratis, Christine Conniff-Oâ€™Shea, and Maureen Pskowski, having a cross-departmental experience was fantastic.
The other show that Iâ€™ve done that Iâ€™m extremely proud of is the one that was called After the Crash: Picturing the U.S. 1930-1943, which I did [in 2000] in conjunction with a curatorial assistant in photography and the special collections librarian in Ryerson. We incorporated prints, photographs, and texts from the Depression, [about] the Depression.
We used our WPA [Works Progress Administration] and FSA [Farm Security Administration] holdings, and it was based upon my question: â€˜If so many of the artists who worked for the WPA were urban, why are there so many farm images?â€™ So, [we were asking] whether or not the FSA photographs played any role in what got depicted in printmaking. To some degree we found evidence that it definitely was true, and there were quite a few artists that worked both on the FSA project and the WPA project. [â€¦] The crowning moment for that was, even though we didnâ€™t get to do a book, we had a panel discussion that was chaired by George Roeder, who created the Visual and Critical Studies area at SAIC (now sadly deceased), and included Studs Terkel, who was still really sharp, he really had his wits about him, and the photo historian and photographer Naomi and Walter Rosenblum, respectively.â€
â€” Mark Pascale
Mark also collaborates across the city with other museums and galleries. In the mid-1990s Mark was an advisor and catalogue contributor to one of the definitive Chicago print shows, Second Sight: Printmaking in Chicago 1935-1995, a survey exhibition at Northwestern Universityâ€™s Block Museum of Art. When I mentioned that show, he sighed and said, â€œI wish I could redo it because Iâ€™ve learned a lot more about the history of Chicago printmaking since then. But I covered some of it in the Chicago Stories exhibition.â€
(Chicago Stories is Markâ€™s most recent departmental exhibit from the summer of 2010, an historical survey of local printmaking called Chicago Stories: Prints and H.C. Westermannâ€™s â€˜See America First‘. While I served as an intern in the department with Mark, fellow intern Andrew Blackley and I collaborated with him on the research, writing, and exhibition planning for Chicago Stories.)
Although Mark rarely has the time to advise or organize more than one show a year outside of the department, he is often asked to judge exhibitions. This year he selected a members exhibition for the upcoming Southern Graphics Council Tempting Equilibrium conference in St. Louis (March 16th-19th, 2011). At the Art Institute, Mark is currently working on a departmental exhibit showcasing a promised gift of over 100 contemporary drawings from a private Chicago collection. He notes that the museum recently has received a lot of criticism for doing private collection shows, but that itâ€™s simply a way to honor and celebrate the major support of private collectors:
â€œWeâ€™re often accused of being an island, and weâ€™re not. To some people we might be.Â We donâ€™t buy that much art. We spend a lot of time engineering gifts. [â€¦] The people who are quick to criticize the museum donâ€™t seem to know of the long and distinguished history of giving that Chicago museums enjoy, and donâ€™t seem to know that we donâ€™t receive much public money. Thereâ€™s a limit to what we can do, and a high expectation for what we put out. My feeling is that they should be excited and happy that this art stays in the city forever.â€
â€” Mark Pascale
The other big show Mark has been working on for the last few years, scheduled for 2013, is a Martin Puryear retrospective, focusing on Puryearâ€™s printmaking processes.Â Although much of Puryearâ€™s early work was destroyed in a fire, Mark has been able to find a number of working and state proofs for his more recent editions. The exhibit will highlight Puryearâ€™s etchings from Paulson Bott Press (Berkeley, CA), and a major work from Arion Press (San Francisco, CA): illustrations for Cane, a 1923 novel by Harlem Renaissance writer Jean Toomer.
Above and beyond his knowledge of modern and contemporary art, Mark also knows a thing or two about good food in the city. At the end of our conversation, Mark humored me with a list of a few of his favorite places to eat out.
â€œAny opportunity to eat badly, I will accommodate it. I have a very high threshold for peopleâ€™s hot dogs and fries, because itâ€™s such a Chicago thing. Chicago-style hot dog joints are not like what I experienced growing up. Itâ€™s local, and I love local.â€
â€” Mark Pascale
1.) Hot dog and fries at Gene and Jude’s Red Hot Stand (and many other places, but G&J is the best) (2720 River Road, River Grove, IL)
2.) Tom Yum Koong (shrimp soup) and Pad Ped Pla Dook (spicy catfish) at Opart Thai House (4658 North Western Ave., Chicago)
3.) Enchiladas Mole at La OaxaqueÃ±a (3382 North Milwaukee Ave., Chicago)
4.) Bhendi Masala (okra curry) at Hema’s Kitchen (2439 W Devon Ave., Chicago) or Udupi Palace (2543 W Devon Ave.)
5.) Hungarian Potato Pancake at Smak Tak (5961 North Elston Ave., Chicago)
6.) Chicken Fatoush Salad at Pita Inn (Skokie, Wheeling, and Glenview, IL)
Julia V. Hendrickson is a native of eastern Ohio who lives and works as a visual artist, writer, and curator in Chicago, Illinois. In 2008 she graduated with a B.A. in Studio Art and a minor in English from The College of Wooster (Wooster, Ohio). Julia is currently the gallery manager at Corbett vs. Dempsey, as well as the office manager and design assistant for Ork Posters. She is a teaching assistant at the Marwen Foundation, an active member of the Chicago Printers Guild, and has taught at Spudnik Press. A freelance art critic and writer for Newcity, Julia also keeps a blog called The Enthusiast, a documentation of the daily things that inspire, intrigue, and inform. She is currently exhibiting at Anchor Graphics (Columbia College Chicago) in a solo show titled FANTASTIC STANZAS, on view through March 26th.