A partially-sighted visual artist might sound like a contradiction. But Dallas artist Stephen Lapthisophon’s exhibition at the Dallas Museum of Art challenges that notion. KERA contributor Joan Davidow chats with the artist and guides us through his poetic installation. Davidow, an adjunct professor, teaches contemporary art survey in SMU’s Master of Liberal Studies program.
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What makes a visually impaired artist’s work worthy? DMAs assistant curator Gabriel Ritter selected area artist Stephen Lapthisophon for the Concentrations Series, which shows challenging work by contemporary artists worldwide.
The subtitle – “coffee, seasonal fruit, root vegetables, and ‘selected poems'” — gives us a clue about how the artist works: it sounds more like poetry than art, incorporating other senses. He uses traditional paints, but also the stuff of the kitchen…. scents and smells and the poetics of everyday life. His work has the freshness of youth and the wisdom of age: raw and primitive, expressive and unhampered, interwoven with the poignancy of treasured documents. You face a great wall spread with the marigold of turmeric. It looks as though the artist painted with his hands, spreading the Indian spice across the large surface. Lapthisophon tells us more.
“And it’s used as a ground for a framed work that has the map of Rome,” says Lapthisophon. There’s “a stain that’s in the middle of the map of Rome. And Rome is the city of antiquity and wonder, but it’s also a Baroque city, the kind of place that has a lot of ruin. So in the middle of the map is a stain and a drawn area that’s made from the ink that’s made from a potato that’s rotten and fermented, and then kind of been moved around on the surface. So it’s kind of rot on rot on ruin.”
The gallery presentation mimics the artist’s studio. You enter and see his pre-war 1930s desk topped with selected papers; extra walls reveal a propped ladder, artist’s jacket, packing blankets. You have to look closely, to see these nuances. That’s the main objective, to slow down and experience these objects directly. Lapthisophon invites us to see his art recreates the wonder of life
“It’s a lot of things about wonder and mystery and not so much concealment as just pushing you to keep looking and keep looking and keep looking.”
Words and numbers appear, maybe written backwards, and hints of a respected contemporary artist he pays homage to, such as the little smashed egg shell in the middle of a painting that reminds me of witty Belgique artist Marcel Broodthaers’ eggs. That same delightful everydayness defines Lapthisophon’s work.
Often I have a conversation with somebody and they’ll say I don’t really get this. And I’ll say what are you thinking. And they say, ‘ I see this, I see that; I feel this, I feel that.’ And I say, well, no, you get it.
How will his use of non-traditional materials stand the test of time?
“Fading is part of life,” he says. “To say that something used to have a fragrance and now doesn’t, doesn’t mean that something is lacking, it just means it’s in a different place.”
There’s a poignancy to this special artist’s tactile, approachable work. Like a jeweler peering closely into his loop, he “sees” a lot once he gets close to his work. With 30 years experience, he knows what marks he wants and what marks he makes. All the while, Stephen Lapthisophon teaches us about art’s freshness and life’s realities.