I had not seen Kyle Staver’s frieze-like clay sculptures before encountering two of them in Kyle Staver: Tall Tales, her current show at both Lower East Side spaces of Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects (September 9 – October 11, 2015). One clay was titled “Study for Icarus” (2015), which suggests that the artist’s painting, “Icarus” (2015), was based on the small, bas-relief sculpture mounted within a box-like frame. However, with another pair of works, according to their dates, “Study for Red Fox” (2015) was completed after the painting to which it bears a striking resemblance, “ Waterfall and Red Fox” (2014). In either case, the marriage of flat shapes and deep space in the paintings feels in keeping with the frieze-like sculptures. As for their subject matter, which is often derived from Greek myths, Staver shares something with Charles Garabedian: both believe in the beneficial power of the imagination. More importantly, both are adept at including the odd but touching detail, which adds a lively twist to their staged pictorial dramas.
In “Unicorn and Shooting Star (2015), a lambent blue unicorn is barely contained by the painting’s edges. A garlanded, zaftig nude has draped one arm over his back, while caressing his foreleg with her other hand. She has turned to look over her shoulder at a shooting star streaking across the sky. A brighter, larger star shines just in front of her pointy nose. Meanwhile, the unicorn’s blue tail becomes a six-fingered hand caressing the woman’s butt. These two details elevate the painting out of any sweet mire of kitsch it may seem destined to land.
The distinct strings of the unicorn’s tail, in addition to the hand, can also be read as the strands of a whip. Moreover, the direction and placement of the tail and of the woman’s hand echo each other, establishing an internal visual rhyme. Staver further inflects this rhyme by mirroring the kneeling nude with one of the unicorn’s legs. In “Leda” (2015), the shape of the swan’s neck and head, bending to touch the wing’s outspread feathers – again I am reminded of a cartoony, abstract hand, this time with eight fingers – is both abstract and quirky. Draped across the swan’s back, Leda grasps one of the bird’s skinny, glowing orange legs in her sleep. The moment is intimate and comic. All the violence associated with the original myth and its subsequent retellings, including William Butler Yeat’s famous poem, “Leda and the Swan,” has been wiped away by this sweet, post-coital moment.
It is in the details that Staver’s gift for re-envisioning these myths shines. Often, her creatures – which range from unicorns, fauns and birds to lampreys and dragons – are made of curving rubbery shapes that seem to be the result of the artist good-naturedly spoofing gestural painting and big, juicy, expressionist swaths. A fox shaped like a boomerang stretches across the bottom of “Waterfall and Red Fox” (2015) carrying a bloody dove in its maw. The paint handling is simultaneously incommodious and direct and, more importantly, all her own. The abstract shapes out of which she defines her creatures share something with the compositional approaches of Judith Linhares and Dana Schutz.
Staver is the master of incongruous elements: a black dog wears a red bow around its neck, while barking at Pandora, asking for attention; or St. George wears the kind of low pointy, transparent black boots that were derisively called “shit kickers” in my adolescence. Meanwhile, the dragon breathes flames on St. George’s crotch, and the damsel in distress, who is chained to a tree stump, is seemingly about to grasp his horse’s tail, as if to say that he need not try and rescue her. This could be a scene from a comic opera by Gilbert and Sullivan. Nothing adds up quite the way you might expect, but somehow it all holds together and even makes some kind of sense.
A number of paintings take place at night or in the evening. The sky is a dark or electric blue. In “Ganymede” (2015), even though it is daytime, the sky is a deep blue overlaid with glowing, puffy white clouds seemingly made from spun sugar. Ganymede is a symbol of the beautiful young man who attracts male desire, in this case Zeus, who disguised himself as an eagle so he could carry him to Olympus.
By revising a variety of well-known myths, and focusing on a moment other than the ones we are familiar with, Staver seems intent on positing a fresh angle, another possibility regarding our understanding of intimate relationships. In this regard, she is a utopian who doesn’t take herself too seriously, doesn’t devolve into the ponderous or didactic. She prefers the comic and a light touch. There is an innocence to these dramas that is Chaplinesque. Like Chaplin, she seems to be on a rescue mission fraught with perils. She wants Leda and her other creatures to escape unscathed, even as a red fox stretches across the canvas carrying a dead bird in its mouth or lampreys rise out of Pandora’s box. Beneath the humor and eccentricity that animates Staver’s work, there is a current of dignity and somberness that imbues it with a depth of feeling. It is a rare artist who can be comedic and serious at the same time, while stirring up our sympathy for her creatures’ plight. Staver belongs to that small group.
Kyle Staver: Tall Tales continues at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects (208 Forsyth Street, Bowery, Manhattan/237 Eldridge Street, Bowery, Manhattan) through October 11.