Arts Writing Artist Features

Stephen Slappe

Stephen Slappe and Actors on Set. 2010 Individual Artist Fellowship, Oregon Arts Commission.

Originally published April, 2011

You are standing in the middle of an intersection in the middle of nowhere surrounded by brown grasses blowing in the wind. In Stephen Slappe’s Crossroads, a 4-channel video installation seen most recently as part of the Portland2010 Biennial, you are surrounded in the dark by four large screens, and the only thing you can hear is that wind brushing through the grass…until you hear footfalls…a man is running toward you from one direction, and suddenly, you hear and see a speeding muscle car approaching from your right. Something’s going to happen and it’s probably not good. The sound and the tension builds until…both drive right through you. A video work has perhaps made me jump before, and I have been provoked to feel many emotions by a work, but never have I felt a physical sensation as I did in that surprising moment. It was something between vertigo and the shove of moving air one feels when standing on the side of a road and a truck speeds by. Slappe managed to erase the distance between viewer and viewed through clever deployment of scale, sound, and theater-in-the-round.

In thinking about the throughline in Stephen Slappe’s video based art, I was struck by one thing: Slappe puts you right in the middle of it. Slappe makes primarily video work that addresses the political, the personal, the perceptual, and the pop cultural. In his major work, Shelter in Place (2009) at New American Art Union (supported by one of NAAU’s Couture stipend’s), Slappe put the viewer in the middle of an Appalachian landscape. Video was projected downward onto a topographical sculpture of the South Carolina valley in which Slappe grew up, while video was projected on opposite walls of imagery from the 80s, (Reagan, Bhopal, Cold War) that transitioned into the rooms of two teenagers who shared punk rock imagery and song between them via the telephone. “Shelter,” the title of which refers to the instructions residents of South Charleston were given in the event of a chemical leak from the Union Carbide plant, evokes the anxiety of the helpless we in the face of the profit-driven corporate power, and the ways we find to cope with that.

His We Are Legion project, launched for PICA’s TBA:09 Festival and continuing at the “Welcome to the Legion” website, invites viewers to submit photos of themselves in Halloween costumes. The figures in these photos are stripped of context, and presented floating by with a legion of other masked revelers. We Are Legion asks us, you and me in the middle of it, what the conditions are that culture sets up that makes certain costumes prevalent others permissable. What do we say about ourselves collectively, it asks, when given the chance to make a fiction of ourselves?

In his installation, Chain Reaction (2006) at Tilt Gallery and Project Space, Slappe made the viewer both scientist and specimen, observer and observed. And his multi-channel video work, Increasing In Significance (2006) situates the viewer as a pivot point in a perceptual exercise in the round.

Assistant Professor in Intermedia at Pacific Northwest College of Art, Slappe, in addition to receiving a 2010 Oregon Arts Commission Fellowship, has received support from the Regional Arts and Culture Council and been awarded a Caldera residency. Slappe’s work has been exhibited nationally and internationally at the South Carolina State Museum, The Centre for Contemporary Art in Glasgow, The Sarai Media Lab in Delhi, Artists’ Television Access in San Francisco, and The Art Gym at Marylhurst University.

Courtesy of The Oregon Arts Commission.

Artist Credit: Stephen Slappe

Exhibition: Oregon Arts Commission Fellows

Project Website

Oregon Arts Commission