“I was so scared for such a long time about making personal work because I was afraid it wouldn’t be taken seriously in the art world,” she says. “Well, that’s the very thing that I need to be pushing against. Why wouldn’t it be taken seriously? Because I’m a woman and historically women’s authentic experiences have not been taken seriously. So the very thing I was scared of doing is the thing I should have been doing all along.”
When Stephens first began her career as a female artist in a male-dominated industry, she pushed against the idea of her work being categorized as feminist art, but a combination of the changing climate toward women and women’s rights in the United States along with her own journey as an artist and a woman now in her 40s has caused a shift in her perspective.
“I have come to realize that pushing back against the idea that I am a feminist artist only aids those with an anti-woman or anti-feminist agenda,” Stephens says. “My solution to this has been to move away from making work about experiences in general or women in general and to try to make work specifically about me and my experiences.”
She showcased a large grid of nine images that depict violence against women this weekend at Oak Cliff’s annual Visual SpeedBump Art Tour 2019, which is now for sale after the event. Her intention for the piece, which she titled “Got You In My Sights,” is to illustrate the “tenuous line between desire and anger that women are often on the receiving end of,” she says. It’s the dance between the good and bad sides of attraction.
“I want this work to exist as an illustration of a space I have often experienced as a woman, where as a sexual being with agency I want to garner attraction and desire,” Stephen explains, “but as a woman who chooses to exist in that space, I must also be prepared to be a target of anger and violence.”
The title was inspired by the Eric Carmen song “Hungry Eyes” from the Dirty Dancing soundtrack — a movie Stephens says she was “obsessed with as a young woman coming into my sexuality” — which goes: “I want to hold you so hear me out, I want to show you what love’s all about, darling tonight, I’ve got you in my sights.”
It’s an idiom that so clearly denotes desire in one context but can just as clearly mean violence in another. Stephens uses the team-based multiplayer shooter game Overwatch as an example of this.
“The phrase ‘I’ve got you in my sights’ is found at the moment of a particular type of successful kill,” she points out. “There are millions of GIFs of instances of that moment as captured by players and shared online.”
Her piece, which has been a decade in the making, reminds us of the tricky and dangerous balance between those two states. Stephens originally found the images that make up the background of the piece in a trash pile. “I was so taken by this female imagery that had been cast off that I held onto them,” she says. She knew she wanted to “intervene on the imagery” by giving it value again, but she didn’t know exactly how to achieve that.
“Throughout the history of art, we have seen men lauded for making art they describe as spiritual and/or emotional and women be slighted for making work with similar motivations.” — Erica Stephens
Every year Stephens would pull the images out to study them, waiting patiently until the moment when she knew what they meant to her and what she wanted them to become. This year it finally happened, with two simple touches added to each image: She gave the hands of the figures manicures to symbolize sexual agency and a single drip of red paint down the forehead, “an abstraction of a classic paint drip that in this context looks like a representation of violence,” she says.
The other body of work she’s currently preparing for is for a show in December titled Paintings for a Lost Lover, which she will release alongside a book of her poetry, Poetry for a Lost Lover. The inspiration for this work is a passionate love affair that Stephens knew, even at the time, wouldn’t last. They used to read Langston Hughes poetry together, which Stephens feels is “the only space where we allowed our emotional selves to connect honestly.”
Stephens uses Hughes’ poems as “a placeholder for the immaterial,” namely her memories and emotions about the affair, and she in turn has created a series of paintings that she hopes will be for someone else what Hughes’ poetry was for her. Each of the paintings is named after one of his poems. This work follows Stephens’ trend of reflecting on her own life as a source of inspiration for her work.
“Throughout the history of art, we have seen men lauded for making art they describe as spiritual and/or emotional and women be slighted for making work with similar motivations,” she says.
If you like it, great. If you don’t, Stephens really doesn’t care.
“I want to enter that space with authority and indignation and make work that is so genuinely emotional and personal that it is difficult to write off,” she says, “because in the end I am the absolute authority on my own experience.”