One of the consequences of declaring that painting died in the 1960s is that it helped define and preserve a canon largely made up of white men. Depending on your aesthetic disposition, the narrative of modernism’s progress culminated either with Jackson Pollock or Andy Warhol, both of whom were said to have destroyed painting.
I see the desire to write the excluded self into this history as representing a direct and, one hopes, fatal challenge to the hierarchical thinking that has prevailed for centuries — so much so that there are many individuals who would have you believe that the silencing of others is an inalienable right.
What is perhaps less emphasized and less discussed — particularly in the art world — are the institutional agendas regarding race and gender that are advanced by hierarchical thinking, from the various declarations of the triumph of America painting to painting’s inevitable death. Despite all the changes that have taken place in the art world since I began writing about art in 1977, I, for one, do not think the shadows cast by these formulations have dissipated. They might have changed their names, but that does not mean they are gone.
Seeing the work of an artist who is writing herself into an exclusionary history is not why you should go to the exhibition Kyle Staver at Zürcher. You should go for the many pleasures that you can find in her work, which includes paintings, fired clay bas-reliefs mounted in white shadowbox frames, and works on paper.
Around 10 years ago Staver began painting mythological subjects, moving away from biographical subject matter. That shift in focus enabled her to enlarge the imaginative scope of her work — to paint mermaids, centaurs and all manner of beasts. By the time she turned her attention to myths, she had developed an idiosyncratic way of depicting the figure, inspired by Henri Matisse, American folk art and David Park. One of the things she absorbed from Park was his creation of light within a scene, something she does in her own recognizable way.
Whereas Park was good at articulating the nuanced particulars of Northern California light, Staver — who grew up in Minnesota — achieves a very different kind of light in her elemental scenes, many of which take place at night in the woods, in the sky, or on or beneath the sea. The core of her current exhibition consists of a dozen paintings, all measuring around five and half by four and half feet, complemented by six bas-reliefs, measuring a little more than twelve inches by around ten inches by five inches and seemingly done as a study for a painting.
Which comes first: the painting or the bas-relief? I wonder if Staver — who initially studied sculpture as an undergrad in art school — makes more than one relief in relationship to a particular painting. This questions pops up because it is easy to see a direct correlation between certain bas-reliefs and their painted counterpart. This is true of the fired clay relief “Study for Swan Flight” (2018) and the painting “Swan Flight” (2017), but the dates indicate that the painting came first. The bas-relief “Psyche’s Watch” (2018) seems to be seen from other side of the view depicted in the painting, “Psyche’s Watch” (2018).
Making a work in another medium, based on something that you have done, is not a new idea. Making a small bas-relief based on a larger painting is hardly common, however. And, while fired clay bas-reliefs of mythical figures can be traced back to the Italian Renaissance and venerated artists such as Donatello and Ghiberti, the medium is not widespread among contemporary artists. If anything, Staver’s practice is an interesting combination of quirky, conservative, and radical.
Her palette can be divided into warm and cool colors, dark and light hues, which she deploys to strong dramatic effect. She is a latter-day luminist, interested in scenarios of extreme contrast in light, for instance, nighttime, beneath a dappled sea, or sunrise. No matter the perspective, the figures are paint in flat, clunky shapes and visible brushstrokes, where eyes, nose, and mouth are rendered from lines, dots, and circles. She often uses a hot red or soft pink to outline one part of figure, indicating the presence of an unseen light source as well as underscoring weight and air. She has a masterful control over the dramatically lit space she evokes. She transforms what is essentially the compressed space of stage and backdrop into a vast domain.
Staver’s paintings are theatrical retellings of myth, an imaginative intervention. In this, she shares something with the writers Angela Carter and Octavia Butler. In “Swan Flight” (2017), a woman rides a swan, surrounded by other swans through a blue-gray sky with muted pinkish-gray clouds. The painting is frontal and the flock of greenish-gray swans is headed directly towards the viewer. White along the edge of the feathers and in the dusty gray-pink clouds further accentuates the presence of an unseen light in this backlit view. As in the show’s other paintings, there is something tender, sweet, and elusive about the work. At the same time, there is something oddball and comical about them, which challenges commonplaces views of the heroic. Without resorting to parody or cynicism, Staver undoes the tropes we associate with depictions of heroic and mythical. First, she often makes the female both the center of attention and not a victim. Second, by developing her own lexicon in both painting and sculpture — one that merges deliberate awkwardness and understated sophistication — she inscribes her presence in a history that many consider closed.
Sitting astride the swan, we cannot tell from the young woman’s expression — a lozenge for a mouth and two small, impenetrable circles for eyes — what she is thinking. In the bas-relief, the holes for the eyes and the slit for a mouth shift the emotional tenor in a different direction, hinting at a purposeful anger. Staver never attempts to disguise the malleable materiality of the clay: instead of trying to perfect the feathers, they remain flattened stubs of clay. While I have seen bas-reliefs in her earlier exhibitions, they were usually sequestered from the paintings. By placing related works in close proximity, we are given the opportunity to examine the similarities as well as discern the differences.
In the reliefs, Staver is focused on how to have forms come forward from the background. This is particularly evident in “Swan Flight.” The internal shifts in scale place some swans closer and others further away in our mind’s eye. The rectangle of clay from which the figures protrude is necessary, but not subject to the attention the rest of the piece receives. The space is compressed.
Distance, in the paintings, is indicated by rudimentary scale shifts, with larger forms in front and smaller ones in back. She can combine multiple perspectives in a single work, as in the painting “Sailors and Sirens” (2017). The warm orange glow of the sirens suggests that they present no danger to the sailors peering at them from over the side of the ship. The painting’s compressed space and multiple perspectives (we see a full-length sailor in profile, standing bare-chested on the crows’s nest, along with the two sailors seen from behind) reveal a highly complicated artist.
In this exhibition, the difference in palette from painting to painting, as well as the different kinds of figural configurations she establishes, are good indications that Staver — for all the recognizable trademarks of her style — has not settled into groove, and that she is still finding ways to paint herself into a hierarchical history.
Kyle Staver continues at Zürcher Gallery (33 Bleecker Street, Manhattan) through October 14.