Visual Art

Erin Stafford Explores the Aesthetics of Decay with Soap Sculptures and a Fur-Lined Bathtub

Along with humor, nostalgia and fantasy, Erin Stafford’s new work references the aesthetics of decay. She thinks about the past: fantasies she had as a kid, the greatest times of her life, and what point she would like to revisit if she had the chance to go back. But she also sees the interplay of nostalgia and fantasy, realizing that the past probably wouldn’t live up to her memories of it.

“For me it’s important to blend nostalgia and fantasy together,” Stafford says. “Those two are almost one and the same for me. I fantasize about nostalgia and I get nostalgic about fantasy.”

Red Arrow Contemporary, the Dragon Street gallery Stafford ran with her sister, has been closed for a year and a half. “It’s still up on the table,” Stafford says. “The problem is that we really ran out of time and resources to get the 501.” This is a shame because Dallas needs more nonprofit exhibition spaces for artists. Stafford regularly applies to shows at nonprofits in Houston, but never finds any such proposal applications in Dallas.

There were also residencies planned for Red Arrow. But by October, Erin and Elissa Stafford, each artists in their own rights, ran out of steam with Red Arrow after two years. At one point they were talking with Hotel ZaZa about the possibility of relocating there with a gallery space and a hotel room for resident artists. “I still think curating as an artist is important,” Stafford says.

Indeed, curating is what pushed her studio practice forward. Leaving grad school a painter, she started working at what was initially her father’s gallery. “They went hand in hand,” Stafford says. “I developed my own voice and stopped painting. I still can’t believe I do sculptural work.” But in terms of color and glazes, she still uses the techniques she learned as a painter.
Her newest show at Kirk Hopper Fine Art, Misbehaving, features a plaster cast of her bathtub. New to sculpture, it took her a month to make, and the shower was unusable the whole time, requiring her to make regular trips to her parents’ house. After looking at theater props and considering weight and expense, she first tried papier-mâché. But that got moldy. “I had to throw an entire bathtub away,” Stafford says, referring to the replica. “It was awkward.”

She was looking at images of Jayne Mansfield while she built the tub. “She was this Hollywood bombshell actress,” Stafford says. But Mansfield also died young in a car accident. “There is this myth that she was beheaded,” Stafford says. “I guess it’s so gruesome that people are attracted to the idea.” Stafford also had images of Mansfield’s home, which had an over-the-top aesthetic she found extreme and unsettling. The bathroom — floor, walls and ceiling — were lined with pink shag carpet.

But the carpet also reminded Stafford of the full-length fur coat her mother wore in the '80s, which she found hilarious. She decided to merge the two ideas and line the plaster tub with white fur fabric. The tub cast weighs 10 pounds, but easily passes for the real thing. The white fur fabric looks somewhat real, but like something in between the surface of a tub and a shag carpet. The fabric is cut like the skin of an animal with the fur still on it. But lining the tub, it looks inviting. There is a “collar” where the faucet would be, both a playful gesture and a sexual reference.
The exhibit also features soap sculptures that mimic food. “Why do people make soap look like food?” she asks. She saw a cinnamon roll online that turned out to be made of soap and couldn’t make sense of it. She started looking at a novelty soap-making craze she had no idea existed.

“Taking a cinnamon roll and rubbing it on your body seems so strange to me,” Stafford continues. But she liked the idea enough to take it further, molding soap into dishes from bygone eras, when it seemed to have a sense of sculpture. She also noticed similarities between soap- and food-making processes. “You can get incredible realism,” Stafford says. She had a lot of fun seeing just how far she could take the idea with desserts, deviled eggs, old food recipes and even ideas from kitschy books with titles like Recipes for Swingers. But she also noticed a lot of history with food and the theatricality of its display.

Misbehaving has a tribute to lost interior spaces, an installation in memory of her grandmother’s house, which was recently renovated. A homage to the home she identified her grandmother with since her earliest memories, it features the original wall color of her grandmother’s bedroom, with Stafford recreating the cracks in the walls. “Luckily she still had a little bit of the color left in her closet,” Stafford says, referring to the paint she used on the walls. There's a plant from the house that's almost as old as Stafford and a light fixture.

“It’s nostalgia,” Stafford says. “But it also ties back to Jayne Mansfield.” While she was working out these ideas, her grandfather passed away. “I started thinking about how the body is this direct reflection of the house.” After all, her grandparents' house had cracks in its walls.

Misbehaving is on display at Kirk Hopper Fine Art, 3008 Commerce St., through May 21.