Things Fall Apart: Stephen Lapthisophon on the Politics of Ephemerality

by Gabriel Martinez July 3, 2024

Stephen Lapthisophon is a Dallas-based artist and writer whose artistic output explores ephemerality through performance, sound, and installation. Lapthisophon’s mixed-media works on paper incorporate non-traditional art materials such as coffee and pigmented animal fat. He took time out from preparing for an upcoming group exhibition, For Dear Life: Art, Medicine, and Disability, at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, to talk with me about his working methods and the influence of poetry and film on his art. 

A non-figurative work on paper

Stephen Lapthisophon, “Grasp” 2018, saffron ink, coffee, house paint, pencil, and charcoal on paper, 30 x 22 inches

Gabriel Martinez (GM) What has inspired your work? What are some of your influences?

Stephen Lapthisophon (SL): I think it has changed a lot. I’ve been making mostly paintings and works on paper, but for a long time, I really only did installations. I didn’t make a lot of gallery work. Things that stick on the wall. 

Nancy Lurie Gallery in Chicago wanted to have a show with me and said, “Well, I can’t ship all the work up and insure everything,” and I said, “Okay, just send me, I’ll go and make the show there.” It was a big 2,000-square-foot space. I went up and found all of the objects in the street, brought them to the gallery, and assembled the show. It was very fast. Since then, I’ve done that a lot. Sometimes I may have seen the space before and sometimes not. I like that idea of being a visitor, a guest somewhere, drifting through and gathering things. I think about a lot of those things in terms of being temporary, nonpermanent objects — making an event out of something, dealing with found objects.

That has appealed to me for a long time. It reflects my interest in the installation artists of the last 50 years or so. When I was in Austin there were a number of really great art historians, one of whom was John Bolt, an expert in early Russian modernism. I took a couple of classes with him, and I got really influenced by that turn-of-the-century spirit and Alexander Rodchenko’s installations. I like the idea of the work being almost a performance in a certain way.

A large gallery with various sculptural objects placed on the floor and against walls and columns.

Stephen Lapthisophon, installation view of “With Reasonable Accommodation,” 2002, mixed media installation

When I went back to school, after graduate school a number of years later, I was working on doing some work in comp lit at Northwestern, and there were a lot of great Frankfurt School scholars who really influenced me. I read a lot and I’m interested in what the edge of political action is when you’re making something that doesn’t last and is very fragile and humble in its materials. I’ve been able to travel a bit in Europe and I think my influences in some ways are more European than anything else — including, obviously, the Arte Povera artists.

I suppose the main American artist who has influenced me is Robert Smithson. I’m a big admirer — the whole scope of his activities: writing, making things, not making things, that sense of discovery. Certainly, I’ve never made any work that is the scale of some of the things he’s done, but I’m very influenced by his way of thinking. I guess that reflects certain ideas about the temporary nature of things and the way that things fall apart for Smithson. They’re very much about a moment, an event, rather than making a permanent sculpture.

I read a lot of poetry, and I think some of that influences me — some of the disjunctions and juxtapositions that happen in poetry. In the installations, I really like challenging people’s expectations. A lot of times people walk in and they think, “Is this finished?” Because I leave a lot of stuff around and often there’s a feeling that they’re walking into something that is still happening. Questions of permanence and ephemerality and the temporary nature of stuff and life have been the things that I’ve been thinking about for a long time.

GM: I want to come back to poetry, but first I want to ask how the body figures into your work.

SL: I don’t think I’m somebody who usually talks about that discourse of the body, but as I look back on things, I realize that a lot of my art is very much about limitations — what bodies do and can’t do. Most of the things I do are very human-scaled. A lot of the drawings and paintings are about how far I can reach. 

I have a show coming up in California in the fall. It’s called For Dear Life and it’s focused on medicine, health, and disability. Years ago I had a show in Chicago at Gallery 400 called Reasonable Accommodation. Sometimes when a show’s over I just kind of move on to the next thing. I’ve always been proud of the show, but it’s not like I dwell on it or anything. I’m not going to recreate that installation, but the curators definitely wanted to refer to it.

A bright green ram is pushed up against the wall of a gallery leading the user int the wall.

Stephen Lapthisophon, Ramp from “With Reasonable Accommodation,” 2002, mixed media installation at Gallery 400, Chicago

Reasonable Accommodation was all about bodies, movement, and space — creating obstacles for people, and things like that. It really does fit in with what I’m doing. The other aspect that it comes down to, in terms of the way that I think about my body, is that a lot of the works on paper and the paintings I’m making are very much about actions and events. I don’t really “paint” something.

I mainly just use stuff to build up layers of things and then reach a point where it’s done. A lot of these ways of building up things are very much gestural acts — pouring and moving things around. It’s not like I’ve got some kind of concept in my head. It’s more about the action. I guess I’m walking away from calling them performances, but they are kind of performances. When I’m in the studio, sometimes it’s just a matter of my body moving around and spilling, pouring, and dumping stuff. They are much more about that than they are about creating an image in the way that you think about traditional image-making.

Conceptual art has influenced me, but I don’t think these actions are really conceptual. They’re very material. They’re not a dry exercise in some pre-planned thing where I’m trying to make a discursive point or something like that. Sometimes people will say that they’re abstract works. And I’m like, “Well, they’re not really abstract. All of the stuff is right there on the surface.” It’s not an abstraction of something else. I think of them as real objects more than anything else, which is what intrigues me a little bit.

GM: I love that approach — understanding the artwork as an object that was produced through sets of gestures that are not necessarily pre-planned or in service of a specific aesthetic goal, but instead are the result of operations that would otherwise be quotidian actions. It would be a totally different situation if they happened in the kitchen.

SL: Yeah. Sometimes they come from the kitchen as much as they come from the art supply stores. I like using real stuff. I’ve got these new canvases that are just coffee, coffee grounds, and objects. There’s a lot of the junk of everyday life, which I like a lot. Which I guess may be the Situationist side of things. 

GM: Yes, or Michel de Certeau. You work without a pre-planned sketch, and you’re doing the actions and the gestures until the work is done. I was wondering how your work might begin and specifically how it might end. If there is such a thing. 

SL: The installations start from just the materials and some vague sense of what I’m thinking about at the moment. Sometimes it’s just a little snippet of language more than anything else that kind of propels it. Sometimes it’s whatever’s on my mind at that moment. With the installations, I don’t want things to be overcrowded. I like to leave a little unfinished quality to them. The works on paper and the paintings start with gestures and actions. I’ve been pouring a lot recently, which I really like. It kind of takes me out of certain kinds of decisions. There’s a lot of work that is very programmatic. “You do this, you do this. Here’s the explanation and you got it.” I just don’t operate that way and I don’t think that traditional art — 16th and 17th century art — operated that way. 

Stephen Lapthisophon, “Window” 2013, latex, ink, and pigmented chicken fat on paper, 30 x 22 inches

I like to allow a little bit of mystery. Some sort of open-endedness to what I’m doing, to challenge somebody. It might start with throwing something at something else and seeing what happens and then responding to that and responding to the next thing. I really don’t have a plan. The open-endedness of things is really important to me. It’s important that something be left unexplained. I don’t think there is necessarily an explanation for art. Sometimes it needs to be something that causes wonder more than anything else. We live in a time where there’s a need for an explanation or some sort of…I don’t know… 

GM: Didactic?

SL: Yeah. I’m not interested in it and I don’t necessarily believe it. We come back to and keep looking at works of art that don’t have a fixed notion of what’s done. There’s something important in constantly wondering about it. Even the most traditional art, say some 17th-century Baroque Italian paintings are often just odd. I think that draws people in and keeps them looking because the paintings don’t necessarily explain themselves. That’s what interests me. I like to leave things a little open-ended.

GM: What about the texts that occasionally appear in the work? Are those phrases coming from specific experiences? How do they take shape? 

SL: I think in some ways the fundamental guiding principle to a lot of what I do is collage-based. Constantly using paper that I’ve saved up, or things like that. Sometimes it’s something I’m listening to while I’m working that just kind of gets scribbled in. Just the act of making marks is very similar to writing. I’m always writing on walls and things. I read a lot and there’ll be some phrase or something that sticks in my head and I want to incorporate it into the art. Sometimes it pertains to something that’s going on in the piece and sometimes it’s just letterforms. I like the way they look.

With some of the paintings and drawings I do, text takes them out of the realm of representing something and more into the realm of mark-making. I’m drawn to that. It’s not about rendering something to look like something. It’s more about the act of the hand. And then sometimes I like to put in things that show what’s in the back of my head while I’m making something. It might be a phrase or something that flies through for a second. There isn’t always an explanation to it or anything neat and tidy, but it’s what’s banging around inside my brain. It’s kind of a scary place.

A non figurative work on paper with collaged elements.

Stephen Lapthisophon, “Factum” 2017, collage, latex, oil stick, coffee grounds, pencil, and spray paint on paper, 43.5 x 30 inches

GM: In my time in Houston I worked with a lot of poets and have really come to appreciate poetry. I still kind of feel like an outsider, but I’ve learned from poets and collaborated with them in different ways. It has become a useful tool when teaching or speaking about my own work. I feel that as artists we’re doing something very similar to poets. The same colors used to paint a living room or a car can be used to paint a landscape or a non-figurative text piece, but in these different usages and juxtapositions, they create new meanings much like montage in film. In doing that, they create new ways of seeing the world or new ways of seeing the subject that the work is addressing. I was wondering how you feel poetry might be influential on the way you work or read the artwork afterward. 

SL: A lot of the work, I hope, has some of the same ambiguities and open-endedness that poems can have, and I like the ways in which moving from one section of a poem to another has this disjuncture that can’t necessarily be explained, but it’s in there and it’s something that produces an affect, but it’s not necessarily all neat and tidy. A lot of my work has to do with creating a certain kind of tone or producing a way in which one feels about something rather than being narrative or descriptive in that way. That’s something that poems do a lot in terms of tone and affect, and a lot of what I’m interested in is what something feels like, whether it be the installations or drawings or paintings. I want somebody to get that particular kind of feeling from an action rather than the thing explaining itself. That’s something my work often shares with poetry. I feel like my work has a certain sympathy with the act of making poems, the way that poems are much more about describing feelings than they are about necessarily telling the story.

A mixed media sculpture consisting of a baord and other found objects leaning against a wall.

A 2024 work by Stephen Lapthisophon composed of found objects

GM: You’ve worked on films and small publications. The first thing I saw was one of your books, Writing Art Cinema. Does film influence your process? 

SL: I think it does. I’m very much drawn to the kind of tone and effort that gets established by certain kinds of films. I’m also interested in incorporating references to popular culture into the work. It’s a way of bringing in something else that may seem a little bit unexpected. A lot of what I do is filled with references to other things. The way in which we exchange ideas in popular culture seems to be in cinema. I studied film when I was in undergraduate and graduate school and later I taught film classes. It’s something that is in my brain, and I like weaving those kinds of references through the work. It’s a shared language that we have. I will confess that many of the references I make are to much older films but I think that we can read into the past by exchanging ideas about movies. 


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Darryl Lauster July 5, 2024 - 14:00

Very nice interview with an excellent artist!

Frances Stevens Bagley July 7, 2024 - 11:18

Ditto to Darryl Lauster, Stephen Lapthisophon is an artist we all can learn from!


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