On Exhibit: finding your way when disability strikes | Calendar | Chicago Reader

On Exhibit: finding your way when disability strikes 

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Stephen Lapthisophon has always noticed the brown Plexiglas wheelchair lift on the stairs in the entryway to UIC's Gallery 400. "It's an awkward, dusty, overlooked structure that goes up three or four steps and is kind of stuck there," he says. "It struck me that a lot of things that are made for the disabled are often an afterthought, and they end up not being integrated into the whole fabric of the building."

Lapthisophon, who's 46 and teaches kindergarten, got his MFA from the School of the Art Institute in 1977 and has exhibited his multimedia work widely over the last 25 years. In 1994 he lost part of his vision due to a degenerative neurological disease and is now legally blind. He reads using either a scanner that says the words aloud or a closed-circuit TV that can magnify print till it's four inches high. When Gallery 400 invited him to make an installation for its current "At the Edge" series, he decided to examine "the kind of discomfort that is often encountered with adaptations for the disabled." The installation's title, With Reasonable Accommodation, is also a recurring phrase in the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990. The act "basically says that employers or institutions have to use what is reasonable accommodation for those with disabilities," explains Lapthisophon. "I'm laying it out there as this extremely vague provision for what needs to be done."

The installation includes a handful of historical references, such as a walker hanging upside down from the ceiling in homage to Marcel Duchamp's 1917 readymade Hat Rack and some enlargements of Andy Warhol's dance-step paintings mounted on low platforms. A tiny reproduction of a 17th-century French painting of blind poet John Milton dictating to his daughter is cordoned off so that it's difficult to see. That and a blurry digital reproduction of Paul Strand's famous photo of a blind street beggar in New York refer directly to Lapthisophon's own impairment. "Strand did it using the trick camera he used to get objective and candid views of people in New York. It looked like a normal camera but actually had a lens that took pictures at a right angle, so he could take someone's photograph without them knowing it," says Lapthisophon. "But in this case he was taking it of someone who couldn't see him anyway."

Elsewhere in the installation, unplugged electrical cords run through boxes; another box vibrates gently. There are many "things that are obviously junky and handmade the way things for the handicapped are junky and not well put together," says Lapthisophon. "I'm trying to dramatize what it's like to go through space when you have disabilities."

The installation is, however, easily navigable for people in wheelchairs. "It's not meant to be a lecturing, haranguing thing--like 'This is the way the world should be,'" says Lapthisophon. "It's more to cause people to be slightly uncomfortable, so if they encounter a discomfort in their life, instead of not knowing how to react they just say directly 'This could be a better space' or 'I wonder what it would be like to not be able to climb those stairs.'"

There'll be a free opening reception for With Reasonable Accommodation from 4 to 7 on Wednesday, October 30, at the gallery, 400 S. Peoria. On November 6 at 5 the gallery will host a free panel discussion on disability and culture with Lapthisophon, David Mitchell from UIC's Department of Disability and Human Development, Joshua Flanders from the Chicago Institute for the Moving Image, and Andrew Metter from Annex/5 Architects. For more information call 312-996-6114 or go to www.uic.edu/aa/college/gallery400.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.

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