A couple of years ago, when I was still resisting Facebook, I heard about the debates Kyle Staver was spearheading there on the topic of Renoir’s late paintings. I set up a profile because I had to know more about this independent-minded female painter who likes Renoir’s work as much as I do. Since then, I’ve gotten to know Staver and her painting “in real life.” She’s dynamic on the canvas and off, a true cheerleader for her aesthetic causes, other artists, and friends.
It was Staver who, in part, suggested my interviews with artists take the form of “beer with a painter.” But when it came time for us to talk, I was invited to “the fort,” the corner table at Santa Fe Bar and Grill in Park Slope, where she and Janice Nowinski meet weekly for girls’ night over frozen margaritas.
Staver makes large-scale figure paintings and small sculptural reliefs. Her subject matter ranges from couples in domestic interiors, rural scenes based on her childhood in Northern Minnesota, and more recently, the mythological. She has a visceral, raw way of telling stories and marking the forms of figures: she’s telling us we need to touch them to know them.
Staver studied at Yale with Andrew Forge, Lester Johnson, and William Bailey. She was recently a visiting teacher at the New York Studio School and the Jerusalem Studio School. Her work is currently on view in a solo exhibition at John Davis Gallery in Hudson, New York.
Jennifer Samet: You started out by making sculpture, and then turned to painting. Would you talk about this?
Kyle Staver: The question is why we make anything. I have thought a lot about this. I believe you are born either a visual thinker or a verbal thinker. I was born a visual thinker. If I had stayed in Northern Minnesota and never been introduced to painting, I would make macramé or knit sweaters. Making things is how the world makes sense to me. That is how I came to sculpture, and as I got more involved with the culture of visual thinking, it became more about painting. But I still think of a painting as a physical thing, like shoveling coal. I feel like a construction worker. Intuitively, my work was about making stuff until it became real — Pygmalion — and then it developed expressive qualities and capabilities.
I didn’t go to a museum until I was 16 years old. The first exhibition I ever went to was a Renoir show at the Chicago Art Institute. I was at a girls’ boarding school and they put us in a bus. We were let out of the bus, and we were walking up the steps, and some guy pulled his pants down, and exposed himself. We were all girls, in our school uniforms. So I’ve never forgotten the exhibition, maybe not because of Renoir, but because of the guy.
JS: Wow. Actually that story is a perfect metaphor for your work — the combination of the humor and humanity, along with your love of Renoir.
KS: Yes, it was ridiculous. I always think about this issue in relation to Rembrandt’s etching, The Good Samaritan. Here is this man doing an incredible good deed, and right next to him is a dog crapping on the street. In the midst of a remarkable moment, life still goes on, and it’s ridiculous. Anything that is remarkable is always embedded in the mundane and ordinary. In Breughel’s painting of Icarus, the field is still being ploughed. The act of Icarus falling is a tiny event within the whole painting.
The understanding is that when we are at our most remarkable, we are still at our most ordinary, and at our most foolish. Broccoli in our teeth, the zipper on our pants is down, but when those things happen, we completely lock in and identify with it. If you see someone with broccoli in his teeth, you don’t think, “That would never happen to me,” you think, “Thank God it’s not me…this time.” That connects us.
There is this incredible Alex Katz painting of Ada in a coat. Her dress is on, and it is a flat image. And then, a tiny piece of Ada’s slip is showing, and I’m in! It is such a loving moment about his understanding of that woman, and all of the flat, graphic, or distanced aspects are thrown away. You understand that he really is responding to her humanness, how difficult it is to be a human being in the world. That is moving. That communicates, “I am like you in more ways than I’m not like you.” And that is what painting can do.
JS: You use mythology and biblical subject matter, but also more personal subject matter, related to your childhood in Minnesota. I feel like the thread that connects it is the focus on that quirky, human approach. How is it different or similar to work out of these varied subjects?
KS: When I first started painting, with personal subject matter, I wanted to tell you what it was like to be alive, and to be Kyle Staver. I thought, I will paint about the most important events of my life, and hopefully, in doing that, will make a connection to you and it will be universal. Well, I did that for a long time.
If you look at Titian, Rembrandt, Tintoretto, or Picasso, you see that at a certain point in their careers, they gave up personal incidents as subject matter, and turned to the mythological, because those themes are typical. We all share Adam and Eve — some sort of ideas about creation. So, rather than go from the particular and try to make it universal, I now am taking the universal and telling you about my stake in it.
I think it happens to every art maker that I care about — they want to use the well that we all dip into. The narratives are as timely now as they were 600 years ago. When I think about Rembrandt, I don’t think of him as some old dead guy, I think about him now. I know him, I see him. I see his paintings, I feel like I’m in communication with him. I am a 21st Century American woman painter just adding to the conversation. The conversation gets bigger and bigger; we never really jettison stuff, we just continue.
JS: I first got to know you through Facebook and was intrigued by the debates you were having there on Renoir. Tell me about this project you have — posting trios of paintings. How does it relate to or affect your painting? What is your goal in doing this?
KS: The three images I post on Facebook is my manifesto each day. I am talking about this issue: how art is all connected. When you put the images together, you see their relationship. It is about the underpinnings of everything we make and think about. We are always building on top of something else. There is no way that Dan Flavin’s neon work could be understood without Luminist painting.
Painters have more in common than we don’t have in common; we share DNA. Usually the Facebook albums begin with an issue I’m thinking about, and then I investigate it. It has taken on a life of its own; I’ve been doing it for three years. I am always looking for more and more surprising combinations. And sometimes I’ll go out too far, and I won’t get any support.
For me it is about communicating. There is an extraordinary opportunity to say, “Come on, participate, have an opinion.” Facebook has given me a platform to talk.
JS: I know how important Renoir is to you and how the popular opinion bothers you. But can you tell me, specifically, what you admire in Renoir? What does he do that no other painter does?
KS: Renoir paints exactly what he is madly in love with. His paintings are completely, utterly shameless in his adoration and his satisfaction. The late Renoirs are really and truly him. You think those women are fat? They aren’t women; they are paintings! Whenever someone says, “Oh, that’s a big mama,” you think, “What’s wrong with you? I’m not asking you to date them or screw them.” They are the manifestations of a painter who cares and is willing to risk and give up everything to investigate this.
Now I don’t always think they’re always successful, but the editing or sorting out part is not his problem. Mel Bochner was in my studio once, and I asked him, “Am I a contemporary painter?” He said, “What?? Yeah! And, this isn’t really your problem. Someone else will sort this out for you. You just have to paint exactly what you believe in.”
Renoir never flinches. He sometimes goes over the edge, but when he’s real, they are a hundred percent on the money. No one else could make those paintings. You might not like them, but you never wonder, “Gee, is that a Pissarro?” No. It is his people. He invented them. We even have a way of saying, “That’s a Renoir woman.” He invented a whole tribe of people that we recognize.
JS: So your admiration is really about that commitment and courage?
KS: Yes. The commitment and unwavering quality. What painter can you name now who isn’t pulling back on his throttle because he is scared it won’t get shown or his dealer won’t like it?
The late Renoirs are the thing that really is over the top, and that is why they offend people. They offend our sensibility of a certain kind of restraint, containment. He didn’t invent this area of interest; it comes out of Rubens and Rembrandt — Baroque women — he just took it over the top. Think about Italian women. Instead of being like a blossom, they are contained and kind of inverted. Who wants to do anything with Piero’s women? I love Piero, but you don’t touch them, you think about them. When you look at a Renoir, you enter, and you engage, or else you hate them. It is like stepping in gum. You’re either willing to step in the gum or you’re not. It’s about that kind of connection in a visceral way.
JS: The issues that seem primary in your work revolve around constructing a complex space and gestalt in the entire painting. Can you talk about this?
KS: When change happens in the history of art, it is always about space. A great example is at the Matisse exhibition at the Met now — the two paintings of Notre Dame. He does this painting I would die to do, and then five minutes later, he does the painting that makes Picasso start paying attention to him again ["View of Notre Dame" (1914)]. He makes a kind of space that you have never seen before, and yet it is completely convincing.
When I think of Piero’s paintings, they make me stop, because he creates a space for contemplation and stillness. On the other hand, if you look at a Rubens, you are on a rollercoaster; you are a participant, and I love that.
To manage the visceral experience of a painting is very exciting. When you first look at a painting, the composition has to be grasped. That is the gestalt. Then it kind of deconstructs into the experience I want you to have. I have recently begun to believe I can control the speed at which I carry you through the painting. There are paintings I want to take you through quickly, paintings that are leisurely, more dramatic, or more contemplative. But they are still moving. I think about that; I care about that.
In my paintings, I want you to have the visual experience of every possible area of space. I want you to be engaged and active. If I paint a trapeze, I want you to feel the sensation, so that you physically — not just intellectually — understand it. It becomes a delivery system for the message.