The title of the painting I had been looking at, “Adam and Eve and the Goats” (2016), surprised me. I had thought it was retelling of a classical myth, a subject that Kyle Staver has explored with verve and humor before. Instead of encountering a painting suffused with sin, shame, and guilt, Staver envisions a pagan world free of such burdens, which means she has transported Adam and Eve to an alternate universe of her devising.
The scene, which takes place close to the surface of the picture plane, is backlit by an otherworldly green light that endows the moment with a soft and soothing glow. Standing just to the left of the painting’s central axis, and with her back to the viewer, Eve is reaching for an apple. We see that there are four juicy red orbs hanging from the branches, more than enough for her and Adam to each have their own fruit to bite into. The real kicker in Staver’s version of this still reverberating event: there isn’t a serpent in sight. In fact, the couple is surrounded by a herd of friendly goats, one of which Adam is holding to his chest, like a big teddy bear. Adam, who is on the far right side of the composition, and two of the goats stare out from the painting, as if we are unwanted intruders, which we are. Maybe Eve intends to give the goats the apples, and isn’t going to eat one in the end.
Staver, who has similarly reconceived many encounters from Greek myths, has, in “Adam and Eve and the Goats,” expanded her realm of possibilities, bringing on more challenges. She wants to re-envision our legacy, which is no small thing. “Adam and Eve” is one of the large oil paintings featured in her current self-titled solo exhibition at Kent Fine Art (September 9 – October 22, 2016), her first with this gallery, which also includes monotypes alongside terracotta bas-reliefs mounted in shadowbox frames. While she has had exhibitions at Tibor de Nagy and at Steven Harvey Fine Art Project, (both of which I reviewed), this one is both her largest and most ambitious.
One sure sign of her ambition is the inclusion of the triptych “Hero and Leander” (2014), which is being shown in New York for the first time, most likely because the gallery is large enough to hold it. In this narrative ensemble, Staver depicts three scenes from the Greek myth of a doomed sexual love. In the story, Leander swims across the Hellesport every night to be with Hero, a priestess of Aphrodite, the Goddess of love. Hero, who lived in a tower, would light his way with a lantern. Eventually, they make love, which a priestess of Aphrodite is forbidden to do. Their lovemaking lasts for many months, but one winter night the cold winds blow out Hero’s lantern and Leander loses his way and drowns.
Reading from left to right, in the first painting in the triptych, Staver depicts the drowned Leander, his bent-over, submerged body suspended inside the painting’s borders — a rubbery, four-limbed, viridian green figure resembling a headless octopus or underwater plant. Indifferent fish swim by. In the middle painting, Hero, who is wearing a white gauzy gown, holding a lantern, and kneeling, looks down at her drowned lover sprawled before her. The arch formed by his limp body echoes the one seen in the first painting, but is turned around and inverted: he is facing upward. In the last painting of the triptych, Hero has leapt off the tower, caught between rising and falling. While Hero might be thought of as a self-immolating woman – a type explored by the great writer and feminist Angela Carter – Staver suspends this tragic figure inside the painting; she seems to be rising toward the painting’s upper left-hand corner, evoking the slim possibility that gravity will not overtake her, rejecting the finality we associate with the myth.
Staver paints her figures as if they were flat, awkward forms made of an infinitely elastic material; they can bend and twist in service of the narrative and under the pressure of the painting’s shallow, compressed space, and the physical edges of the rectangle. Her use of backlighting and the resulting accents endow the otherwise flat figures with volume. The scenes often take place at night, and the otherworldly light emanating from the moon or from an unseen source inflects the forms with a mysterious radiance. Staver’s nighttime domain is presided over by her imagination, and by the desire to tell a different history from the ones handed down to us over time. Despite the tragic endings of many of the myths she alludes to in her work, she postpones the closing down of the story. Even in her painting, “David and Goliath” (2016), Goliath is toppling backwards, but the painting’s upper left corner frames his head. The painting is going to hold him there, and he will fall forever backward and not die.
In many of the paintings, an animal looks out at us. As in Wifredo Lam’s “The Jungle” (1943), also a nighttime work, we are intruders and unwanted witnesses. Staver uses the figures and the narrative to meld together the painting’s flat surface and physical edges. What seems offhand is actually the result of a highly sophisticated painter who I suspect has chosen to fight against her facility.
Even when she is depicting a violent moment, as in “Rescue” (2016), the zaftig young woman, her hair in pigtails, is apt to remind you of Brünnhilde from Richard Wagner’s epic music drama, The Ring of the Nibelungen. Her arms outstretched, she stares into the dragon’s eyes as he opens his fanged mouth and, with his bright red serpentine tongue, appears to lick her hair, adding a wonderfully comic note to the painting. The compact arrangement of the coiling dragon, the rearing horse and rider, and the young woman in need of rescue, adds to the painting’s drama. And yet, haven’t we have come to distrust drama of this sort?
By introducing a touch of comedy, Staver opens up well-known myths and stories, making them more human than lofty. Wit, tenderness and empathy inform her views of the tragic, suggesting that we are not fated to suffer, even though we will. If we consider the Renaissance as one of the shaping forces of the tragic view of humankind in art, we should remember that there were singular figures, such as Piero di Cosimo, who depicted a prelapsarian world of plenitude, as in his masterpiece “The Discovery of Honey” (c. 1500). Stavers extends this occult view of innocence and enchantment into the present. More importantly, she bestows power upon the women in her paintings, lifting them out of the familiar role of victim and vessel. By transforming a pagan world into one in which women can be heroes, she advances the likelihood that we will have to revise everything that we know if we are to proceed.
Kyle Staver continues at Kent Fine Art (210 11th Avenue, Chelsea, Manhattan) through October 22.