I first met Erin Stafford in 2012, when she was working part-time at the Dallas Contemporary and running Red Arrow Contemporary with her sister Elissa. We traded stories about low-paying adjunct positions in the area, and discovered we had some things in common concerning our studio practices.
I’ve been following her work ever since. She received her BFA from UNT, and her MFA from UTSA in 2009. Her return to Dallas marked a shift in her studio practice as she began experimenting with sculpture and installation. Lovesick is her second solo show with Kirk Hopper Fine Art (KHFA) in Dallas.
Colette Copeland: Your 2016 Kirk Hopper exhibition, Misbehaving, featured sculptures from your series Haute Cuisine of Bygone Eras. The detailed cast-soap sculptures resembled elaborately molded foods. Visually compelling and repulsive, the works referenced historical, ostentatious food displays, as well as kitschy jello salads that still permeate southern church pot lucks. Lovesick, your current show at Kirk Hopper, returns to a more personal narrative, exploring heartbreak, yearning and desire. Tell us about this transition.
Erin Stafford: I actually began working on this show years before the soap sculptures, but it took longer for the idea to resolve into a fully formed exhibition. The current work at KHFA is very personal to me in that it is about losing someone I cared for very strongly, and working through those emotions. But the soap work is more about humor and irony.
I suppose a connection would be the way I continue to mine my grandmother’s house for inspiration. I was inspired by her cookbooks from the ’60s and ’70s for the soap work, and I also used several of her silver dishes to create the Lover’s Picnic. Another theme that continues to evolve is the use of tromp’oeil and deception. For Lovesick, I incorporated several textures — vinyl green marble, glass pearls, laminate wood marquetry and artificial fur— imitations of the real thing. I have always been drawn to the faux, seeing how the viewer might be fooled, if just for a moment. The soap work operates in this way as well. Someone asked me during the opening if the fur was real, and I told them that it was real fake fur. Giovanni Valderas made a really insightful observation at the opening, noticing a connection to the multiple imitations and how love can be deceptive in a similar way.
CC: I’m drawn to your non-traditional use of materials like soap, glass pearls, and found china. The materials reference beauty, femininity and social class, yet there’s always a process that ruptures the meaning — an intentional act of resistance. For example: In Loss of Inheritance, you grew crystals on fine glass, porcelain and silver objects, transforming them into fossilized artifacts. Tell us about your materials, your process of transformation, and how the materials drive the conceptual framework of the projects.
ES: I do love a challenge! For this exhibition, one such battle with a new material was the piece entitled Dumb Blonde, which is needlepointed with human hair. It was the first time I experimented with needlepointing and the human hair made it even more difficult. The beauty of a new material and technique is that it’s never perfect, and I need that in my work. It fits conceptually with my ideas and makes the work more interesting. Also, the materials that I am drawn to are infused with meaning, yet allow me to transform them into my own visual language.
CC: What about your return to text in your current show?
ES: There is a lot of text in the new work. I intentionally made some of the text difficult to read, while others are much more direct. I started using text in my work when I moved back to Dallas six years ago. Sometimes the text was confessional, with phrases like “Faked It!”.
The word lovesick jumped out at me one day in the studio. It was a scribbled note from my former partner, and the resulting piece eulogized that idea. It’s an homage to all the people who have ever felt that love was a sickness. In works such as Dumb Blonde, and the Lucky Penny works on paper, the text is more obscure; it’s about giving permission for thoughts to disappear, with phrases like “Forget Me Not” and “Come Back to Me”.
CC: Though your work has specific installation details (like the glass vitrines for soap sculptures), this exhibition emphasizes various tableaux or mise-en-scènes where viewers have more of an interactive encounter with the work. What are your intentions with the tableaux and what do you hope the viewer will take away from the encounter?
ES: Many of the works are inspired by a 1980 movie called Somewhere in Time, which is about time travel, yearning and loss in a metaphysical way. There are moments in the exhibition that feel like a movie or theater set. The Lover’s Picnic, for example, is directly inspired from that movie, whereby the pair are enjoying a meal right before one of them disappears into the future. In my work, I created a picnic for my current partner with food, flowers, wine and candles. The picnic’s remains will rot for the duration of the exhibition. It seemed poetic to allow the food to continually decay, the flowers to wilt and the silver to tarnish. The work is displayed on a platform that references a stage from a theatrical performance. I also wanted other works to feel like props from a performance, such as the tape recorder and the artificial tree.
My hope is that the viewer will see this work — with voyeuristic fascination — as a quasi- documentation of the experience of loss.
CC: Has anyone has ever tried to eat one of the soap sculptures or bathed with one?
ES: I don’t know of anyone trying to eat the soap sculptures, although that work triggered a funny memory of when I was a kid, tricking my younger sister to eat a bar of soap, which didn’t actually happen because I couldn’t hold back my laughter right before she took a bite! I guess I’ve always enjoyed fooling people in that way.
I have had some funny questions come up recently about the new work. The piece Cuddle Death brings up questions about how I acquired so many bees to cover the two love bunnies. I explain that no bees were harmed in the making of the work. Anyone can purchase dead bees online to make a tea, although I personally haven’t tried that yet. Also, some people assumed that I used my actual hair to make Dumb Blonde, which cracks me up since I used A LOT of hair. I mean — how much hair do people think I have?
Erin Stafford’s ‘Lovesick’ is on view at Kirk Hopper Fine Art, Dallas through May 18, 2019