Kyle Staver continues to develop her personal and robust take on the Grand Western figurative tradition. She studied as a sculptor, and her figures have a chthonic monumentality as if they had been pulled and molded directly out of clay. Indeed a room of this exhibit is devoted to the small-scale terracotta reliefs that she makes in support of her paintings, not unlike the way the Renaissance master Tintoretto worked from wax figures to better observe how light falls on a form. And like that painter her figures emerge from earthy brown paint with glimmering flourishes of light and passages of rich, glowing color. Unlike Tintoretto however, who was famously fast, Staver's paintings are hard-won, as evidenced by the pentimenti showing through the layered glazes and slathers of paint.
Historically, Staver made images that were intimate, domestic and personal, later shifting to work that was sourced from specific myths. Increasingly, Staver makes paintings that she views as manifestations of personal feeling and experience through the symbolic language of myth. Old master references inevitably abound, but reinvented with humor and playfulness. Setting many of her paintings in the dark forests of her native Minnesota reinforces her departures from canonic imagery; these are settings less art historical or naturalistic than forests of the imagination, of memory and, I feel, of Edenic longing.
The wildest piece in the show is the absurdly fun David & Goliath. The entire canvas is dense with action. David looks like a naked 14-year old Jewish boy from New York, while a sleek leopard, an escapee from an Etruscan tomb painting, leaps at Goliath, who tumbles backwards revealing his diminutive penis from behind a massive bloody kitchen knife. Goliath's head perspectively diminished in the upper right hand corner of the canvas adding to his monumentality while in a classic Staver move his red nipple breaks the arc of his curving body against a glowing yellow sky. As is often the case in Staver's paintings the secondary figures contribute to the overall eccentricity- in this case a pair of heads, the victims of Goliath's kitchen knife, in profile against the sandy ground like guillotined Gericault heads in cartoon. Two phlegmatic camels wait patiently, like a silent chorus, for the human carnage to be complete holding down the upper right corner of the canvas.
Annunciation 2 is essentially a Mary painting but she appears to be represented as a shepherdess thus invoking a wholly different imagistic lineage. Her dress is humble rather than opulent and royal as she appears in so many historical paintings, but it is also a little too revealing for the chasteness of her story, as if she had run into a painting by Boucher and emerged as an erotic figure. Two gray sheep dogs bark at the dove as Holy Spirit in the literary tradition of the dog that warns its mistress of sexual danger; clearly this Holy Spirit spells trouble for our poor Mary. These dogs also appear to have hooves rather than paws and the artist has scratched curls into the paint so that they seem covered in wool rather than fur, slyly converting them into literal sheep-dogs. Meanwhile a frail lamb perches on the tips of its hooves at the lower right edge of the canvas, causing Mary's blue dress to read like the sky. Mary, who is mother, or matter, thus becomes also the least substantial and solid presence in the painting. The adjacent Annunciation 1 depicts the annunciative angel as unglamorously sun burnt, emerging in a serpentine coil from a fluffy Guston-esque cloud bundle.
Cardinal depicts a big-bootied buxom and bourgeois looking Godiva-type nude knowingly regarding the viewer. She rides second on a horse behind a princely looking male figure dressed in a shimmering zig zag quilted jacket, a counter pattern to the star bursts of pine branch bough that encloses the figures like decorative garnishing. On her wrist sits a red cardinal perhaps speaking to the quality of sexual display central to this piece. In the background a deer observes the figures suggesting that the hunter has been caught by the game.
It's an interesting choice to take on the grand Western figurative tradition for that is what Staver is doing with courage and panache while both puncturing possible pomposity and finding new joy and invention in its language. Perhaps because grandiosity is a card historically overplayed by male painters it is largely women painters today who have been successful at breathing new life into a tradition that had seemed almost entirely moribund. Dana Schutz and Nicole Eisenman are probably the best known of these painters, and Staver belongs in the company of, and is deserving of the acclaim and recognition that these painters have achieved.
Kyle Staver is on view at Kent Fine Art, 210 11th Avenue, 2nd Floor, (Between 24th & 25th Streets), New York, NY 10001 through October 22nd, 2016
All images published with permission and courtesy of Kyle Staver and Kent Fine Art