At one point or another, it happens to all of us: We look at art and we just don't "see it." For Stephen Lapthisophon, artist and art history professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, it's these moments he enjoys most.
"There are works of art that I love that I've been looking at for many, many years and I'm not sure I completely grasp everything that's going on," Lapthisophon says.
Lapthisophon, who is legally blind, holds court tonight at the Dallas Contemporary, the second North Texas professor to speak in the gallery's new DC University lecture series. He talks in a mix of tangents and circles, making lots of sense and blowing up that sense at the same time. There's a messiness to it, but if you believe Lapthisophon, we need more messiness in our lives.
"I think that we return to good and interesting pieces of art because they baffle us," he says. "We return to things for the mystery of things."
It's a messiness American pop culture too often rejects, he says: "There's an emphasis on fast-food culture, a customer-service mentality in the world and in cultural affairs with focus groups, surveys and audience and demographics sampling."
Lapthisophon puts responsibility on the artists as well, to not take the easy way out with their work. "There are a lot of works of art that people say, 'I don't understand this.' But if you push them and find out what they do like, a lot of times it's not what they like, it's what's easier to digest, and they don't really understand it any more than the stuff they say they don't understand."
As a result, Lapthisophon says, students come into his class with an easy-to-package mentality. "I don't think it's the students fault," he says. "A lot of education has been made with the same model of quickly consumed, branded and tested. A lot of art students have the expectation that there's a formula. I'm not convinced of that."
Once in his classroom, he counter-balances their conditioning by throwing the syllabus out the window and challenging their notions of art, learning, even themselves. One former student, 24-year-old Kevin Rubén Jacobs, seems to have gotten the message: He's the founder and operator of the Oliver Francis Gallery and assistant curator/exhibitions manager at the Goss-Michael Foundation, and he credits Lapthisophon as a major influence on his career.
"Not only my practice but me as a person," Jacobs says. "With Oliver Francis Gallery, my attitude toward the operation of the gallery is something that I gained from being around Stephen." He especially cites Lapthisophon's ability to push his students to places they might not be comfortable, in order to bring out their best creatively.
"It's really cool to see students minds switched on whenever they're around Stephen," Jacobs says. "He has a really incredible power to stimulate creative activity in people, albeit he's not forgiving. He's pretty critical, but that's what makes him awesome."
Christine Hoang graduated form UTA last year and was deeply affected by Lapthisophon radical and self-paced classes.
"He never gave assignments, although he did expect a lot from each student," she says. "He encouraged experimentation, which allowed an individual to play and loosen up with their art practice. One of the most important things he taught me is to never stop creating and always make more."
Hoang, a freelance artist, currently works with Performance Southwest, with an emphasis on video, performance and inter-media. Since graduating, Hoang has kept in touch with her former professor "almost weekly." She cites his mentorship as hugely influential on her career post-graduation.
Lapthisophon lost most of his vision in 1994, due to an optic nerve disease. He's now legally blind.
"Any major illness, you go through the things people talk about -- self-doubt, self-pity, anger, grief, acceptance," he says. "I went through all of them."
The materials he works with now are the same as before his disability. What changed was his emphasis on what's really important.
"It allowed me to be more direct in what's really important about art-making," he says. "I went through many emotionally defeating times, but it gave me the desire to not be defeated."
Keeping the same materials, and the same technique, Lapthisophon got to work. Videos online show him with his face almost buried in his work, perhaps a partial effect of his blindness, placing paint, food and found objects into his installations.
"I was never a fussy artmaker," he says. "Art-making is a social art for me, not a highly technical-based thing."
Raised in Houston, Lapthisophon was the only child of a family of educators and political activists. He was heavily influenced by movies and television, bombarded with images from political campaigns and advertising, which became an influence on his work as an adult. Describing his work creates a cross-referencing of post-modern thought and practice: Collage. Multi-media. Installation. Nods to Marx, Heidegger and Walter Benjamin abound through his use of language and text in past exhibits, in the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, Koch/Kunst/Galerie in Berlin as part of the Zagreus Projekt, as artist-in-residence at Southside on Lamar and Mountain View College in Oak Cliff, where he lives.
With all the artistic talent living in Oak Cliff -- himself, Arthur Pena, Isaac Davies, Lucia Simek, the Donjuan brothers and more -- it's easy to conclude that the neighborhood has become a hub for the progressive arts. Lapthisophon brushes this off, oddly.
"I'm gonna be a little cynical and say it's coincidence," he says. "There's a certain kind of ethos of likeminded people with The Kessler, Texas Theater, and restaurants that feel interesting. I know there's a lot of people who are down here in terms of art types. But it's not like were all walking to the corner tavern and hanging out. I think that a lot of it is my wife looked and our exact house, same architect, same design, same everything was built in east Dallas on Greenville and it's three times the price. A lot of the time the explanation is practical. Humans are practical. They make things easy on themselves."
It's hard to box in Lapthisophon. He works in multiple discourses, never allowing for easy explanations of his work. In fact, if you ask him to describe himself he'll throw you another curve ball. "I'm a poet," he says. And then: "Poetry is useless. It's there only there for the quickening of the mind and spirit. It's not a product of commodity."
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And then, off he goes.
"There is an inherent difficulty in poetry and I'm drawn to that. I say that as a slight reference to the late work of Heidegger, who valued the way language is used by poets to connect with the past. My work is very much about engagement with the past. So I think it's a kind of way poems ask you to step outside of everything else. I'm also drawn to the way thinking poetically is different from every other aspect of life. I think my work operates that way, it engages the past. It's a social intervention that demands you to think, to engage on its own terms. You see the information in the realm of just art, a pure place."
He pauses, aware of the complication of it all, of the mess you create when try to explain your work. "Sometimes people misunderstand understanding," he says.
DC University launches tonight at 7 p.m. at the Dallas Contemporary, 161 Glass Street.