London-based artist Mary Stephenson recreates life-sized 3D sets of the interior spaces of her friends and family. Creating playfully absurd portraits from a mixture of expanding foam, clay, paper and cardboard, Mary first builds, then paints and photographs real-size stage sets inspired by the living, working and intimate spaces of her sitters, who have included friends and their families and even Hackney’s Broadway Market butchers Hill & Szrok.
“I’ve always painted but came to a point where the dimension of my work felt limited,” she tells me. “My sculptural portraits embrace a playful desire to get inside the staging of paintings, enacting a childhood fantasy of mine to inhabit my favourite works of art. As a little girl, I particularly loved Degas’ dancers. I always thought, ‘Why can’t I jump on to that stage?’ I imagined dancing along glistening oil paint filled floors and hiding behind long draped curtains, peering out across the auditorium in my beautiful crisp white tutu embellished with flowers. My work started as a process in which I was trying to live out and explore these dreams.”
Part portraits, part theatre sets, Mary’s work sits somewhere between reality and fantasy, recalling Victorian “tableau vivant” scenes, “living pictures” in which static costumed actors recreated artworks on stage, in the homes of the wealthy middle classes or in fairground slideshows. But where tableau vivant scenes often restaged historical narratives, Mary’s portraits live firmly in the present. In one family portrait, the foreground is filled with detailed models of the odds and ends of middle-class modern life — Cat boots, cheese plants, Jaffa Cakes and knitted stress balls, a Vice annual, Selfridges shopping bag, NARS make-up palette, Lonely Planet guides and a wheel of Le Rustique brie.
The intricate detail in Mary’s portraits is the result of intense research. “Initially I interview the sitter and get to know them and their lives in intimate detail. They tell me about their favourite things, food, places, stories and memories. This process is usually extremely cathartic and I take away the information and begin to construct a unique and personal world for them.” It’s a painstaking process, and Mary admits that: “the larger portraits, for example the family portraits, can take up to three months to make.”
Mary is currently working on My Man, a series of self-portraits depicting herself on dates with a collection of imaginary boyfriends made from clay. “The men represent a placeholder within the settings I anticipate for future relationships. They explore the idea of the structure of relationships and my anxieties in placing myself within them.” For now at least, she’s keeping busy building a recreation of her flat in her studio out of paper and cardboard (“It’s much cleaner than the real one!”). Strewn with tequila, wine, cans of beer, Golden Virginia packets “and of course some Doritos Chilli Heat Waves”, the set will become the stage for her first live performance, My Man’s House Party.
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