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The Georgia Stafford Retrospective, a review by a friend
All contents copyright 2013 and before by J R Compton.
All Rights Reserved. This story was first published in
DallasArtsRevue on paper in 1987, when I had low-tech for pix.
Stuck in a World Not My Own
Georgia Stafford Puppet 1983 See text below.
1997 and 2013
by J R Compton.
All Rights Reserved.
No Reproduction in Any Medium without Written Permission
See also About Her Death, the story of Georgia's
death as told in a letter to poet Gerald Burns.
he Georgia Stafford Retrospective at Left Right Neo Obsessive Gallery on Parry Avenue across from Fair Park in October 1986 was a heavy show, laden with angry and hurt imagery, reflecting both personal pain and the universal Angst of the 80s. In an era of frivolous and arbitrary imagery often used in pseudo- expressionistic attempts, Georgia Stafford's ability and obsessive need to lay her own battered psyche bare to the world set her apart.
Georgia Stafford The Girl From SMU oil on canvas 30 x 24 inches
Stafford, who killed herself one year and a few days before the show, was remarkably prolific. The 117 works shown in the temporary space were selected from her own collection of more than fifteen hundred drawings, paintings, collages and prints — and from the collections of friends. The show spanned Stafford's work from 1976, to Center College in Kentucky; her early days in Dallas as an actuary; living and working at 500 Exposition Gallery; a dynamic year as a CETA artist-in-residence; MFA studies at SMU and Europe that summer; a critically unreported show at Cafe 500; and self exile to Granbury, Texas, where her body was found in mid-October, 1985 — less than a week before her 30th birthday.
Georgia Stafford Return of the Hundred Headless Women 1983
oil and watercolor on thick paper 13 x 20 inches
Georgia Lynn Stafford (1955-1985) was a daring but entertaining poet, riveting audio and visual performer, superb photographer, expressive singer/song-writer, perceptive perpetrator and an active collaborator. She loved to dance and make art to hard wave musics. Rock & Roll and The Blues are integral to her art, and many of her titles came from songs.
Georgia Stafford Feeling Black & Blue and Get It Straight ink print 23 x 17 inches
Georgia was often attractive. She could be gentle and vulnerable, then abusive without a moment's notice — depending on the click in the clock counting down to her next seizure. But always, wherever she was and however she felt, and on whatever materials were at hand, she drew.
Georgia Stafford self-portrait painted on Dixie's curtains
er art tells a moody story of a talented and obsessed artist intuitive in many 2-D media. The earliest piece — a white-faced blue pastel wizard with a star-tipped wand — was probably drawn in 1976. A delicate etching, a dark charcoal crucifixion, a vivid red/green Dead Reagan in 1984 poster and contrasting soft, revealing self-portraits continued the show's chronology. When her parents divorced, and her father left, Georgia felt abandoned. Early optimism became anger and frustration — and it was jarringly visible in her work.
Georgia Stafford Portrait of Lisa (Lacy)
Later, in calmer times, she developed a delicate, lyrical color sensitivity. Lilting woodblocks and straightforward portraits of friends — who were Georgia's usual models — saved the show from utter sadness. But her dominant, discordant red/green passions, often mixing to muddy browns, reflected her overwhelming depression. “I'm never bored,” she once rejoindered me when I accused her of only calling me when she was bored or lonely, “And I'm always lonely.”
Georgia Stafford My Little Boatbabies Lost At Sea oil on canvas or curtains 48 x 43 inches
J R Compton Collection
Along the back wall under the skylit vault, large paintings from 1981 and 82 — Stafford's most political and prolific period — taunted viewers with graphic images of personal and political protest. Myth: The Last American, a 6' x 5' white handgun silhouette on fragmented red/black field, lent a tone of eerie, unstable violence. In Nancy and Some Guy, a 30 x 40-inch Rouault-colored acrylic, a man with one hand gently on a woman's shoulder, holds a pistol to her head with the other.
Georgia Stafford one of her "intriguing color studies"
The final wall of the main gallery presented the full spectrum of Georgia's lifetime of media and technique. Truly expressive portraits of herself, her friends and spooky fantasies splayed salon-style across the wall of the makeshift gallery. Angry cartoons, intriguing color studies, luscious dark monotypes and small photographs varied the mix. The temporary gallery's name, “Left Right Neo Obsessive” was the term coined by Georgia and her SMU-roommate Lisa Lacy for what they called their politically dyslexic, minimalist anti-modern aesthetic.
Georgia Stafford self-portrait in bed
eorgia spent much of her life in bed anticipating or recuperating from epileptic seizures, illnesses, bouts of depression or failed suicide attempts. These times are amply represented in the smaller media she could manipulate, often single-handed, from bed. A remarkable pair of pencil drawings on newsprint reflect the overwhelming disconsolation of one such period. From After Meeting the Destroyer, she stares blank-eyed and bleak, sadness manifest in every photographically rendered detail.
Georgia Stafford Folly 1983 graphite on paper text below
In “Folly,” a straight-faced Georgia mirror-images her face on the pillow of an unmade bed. Above it, she wrote:
I am a mirror
people men and women
look at me
& try to see
what they want to see
sometimes I let them
sometimes I can't.
Georgia Stafford On The Red Bed
In a revealing 9 x 12-inch oil of a nude on The Red Bed, the figure's feet are severed, a crimson slit spots between her legs, and the red rent in her shoulder nearly cuts off six mutated, skeletal arms. Floating in the green miasmas behind her, a ghoulish skull forms.
Georgia Stafford Control Addict 1981 oil and crayon on canvas
J R Compton Collection
Perhaps her most exquisite — and strangest — works were what she called her “Methedrine drawings.” These gloomy gray, white and silver on tan paper drawings play positive and negative pencil, watercolor and crayon shapes into mysterious situations. In one, two hulking figures threaten a tattered self standing on a multi-checkered floor against the wall. Behind the barefooted figure, four dark silver cut-away shadows shade the wall.
Georgia Stafford Self-Portrait with Hot Air Death Mask 1983
n various spectral manifestations, these ghostly devices — skulls, skeletons, claws and ominous red scars — haunt much of Stafford's later work. The Return of the Hundred Headless Woman, 1983, has spirits delicately etched in and out of the painted wall. In A Condition of Mercy, an informal, watercolor wash portrait of me, gray wraiths are suspended behind my head like miniature hanged men. The skull in a portrait of her friend Dallas writer Roxy Gordon is Yorick-like. Her definitive Self Portrait with Hot Air Death Mask, holds the string to an inflated skull balloon, which hovers menacingly with wild, yawing magenta eyes, from a string in her placid yellow hands.
Georgia Stafford Portrait of Roxy Gordon oil on canvas 16 x 12 inches
A masked Death skull, claw upraised, dances a blank-eyed skeleton with red shoulder slash in “puppet” [top of page] as a sad clown watches the toy dangle. Stafford's own shoulder dislocated during a doctor's demented study of a grand mal seizure he'd jump-started with a brain scan. Painful years later, eight hours of surgery left a long ribbon scar down her left shoulder and side. It also left a numb, useless feeling in her arm and hand. Several pencil and fading marker pieces, including I Held My Brain Waves in My Hand document the beginning of that bizarre incident. In another poster, a pistol and face are separated by a diagonal markered, “Stuck In A World Not My Own.”
Georgia Stafford You Made A Donkey Out of Me 9 x 12.5 inches graphite and pastels on paper
J R Compton Collection
Zigzagging across one corner of the studio's kitchen like wrapped laundry, was a replication of Georgia's most moving and involving piece ever. No Room to Dance, the 1981 mixed media installation at 500 Exposition Gallery combined pages from her aunt Katie Hopson Tindall's yellowing childhood scrapbook with her own vivid crayon, poetry and collaged commentary on the other side. These collages were wrapped in clear plastic and sealed with bold black and red tape — forming translucent, rectilinear capsules, clothespinned to white line.
atie's scrapbook of pressed flowers, dance cards, snapshots, clippings and other souvenirs of growing up, is sharply contrasted by Georgia's turbulent, often disjointed scribblings. Like Georgia, Katie was brilliant and constantly debilitated by disease. Both died too soon.
Georgia Stafford self-portrait vase — "But those aren't my tits," she told me. 7.5 inches high
J R Compton Collection
In one hanging bag, aging locks of hair back a raging red crayoned, “No, No, No” echoing her hatred for her medicine. Floating under the plastic was an amber vial, empty of its daily prescription of phenobarbital. The heavy downer forestalled seizures, but it also kept Georgia on a low roller coaster of depression, anxiety and escape. Ironically, pills and booze — the mix specifically prohibited on the amber vial — comprised Stafford's final, successful suicide attempt.
Georgia Stafford untitled (I always called it "Grab") 48 x 48 inches
J R Compton Collection
Georgia had little faith in the future. She signed few works. Markered pieces have faded, drawings are fragile, pastels unfixed. And though she often traded and gifted her pieces, she sold precious few. Selling something was always cause for celebration — though she never made more than $450 — usually much less. That top price was a direct commission that she finished in only a few hours. She'd agree that it was her worst painting ever.
Georgia Stafford Dixie's Eyes 1981
Now she's gone, friends and others would love to buy her art. But it's too late. Georgia Stafford died without a will, and her mother, who promised me Georgia's works would be for sale to friends at The Georgia Stafford Retrospective I curated in 1984, could not let go. It's a shame more people can't share her art — there's so much of it. But maybe it's fair that we few brave souls who cherished her and her work during her lifetime, now have it to remember her.
Although somebody has deleted some work, especially The Methedrine Drawings in which Georgia narrated only partially fictional paranoid fantasies, most of Georgia's work is shown on her brothers' website "honoring her work."
Those images have not been color or tonally corrected, so many do not actually look like the actual work. Georgia was careful about her colors, but her brothers have not been; several show a silver tripod reflected in the frame glass; many include bright red clips that hold the work flat, as if they were part of the artwork, and some are mis-identified by titles, descriptions and mediums — my favorite is calling her prints "ink blot technique," but it had to have been a monster job to get the collection that far, and they did.
Apparently they were not privy to the catalog I published for the show. That set of stapled pages included a lot of background information, creation dates, mediums, sizes, etc. I watched in horror as Dixie grabbed several of those catalogs out of the hands of startled visitors, and apparently disappeared my carefully researched subtexts forever.
Supposedly, my payment for organizing that show was that Georgia's mother would sell much of the work to Georgia's friends here, but that did not happen, either.
Georgia was my best friend, and I curated
the show described in this story. — J R Compton
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