KENT FINE ART | SEPTEMBER 9 – OCTOBER 22, 2016
In her most recent show, the Brooklyn-based artist Kyle Staver presents paintings that provide the viewer with an escape—to a world that is familiar enough to be recognizable, but more magical than our own. It’s a world filled with mythology and religious narratives, but emptied of malice and the threat of real violence. Figures in sword fights seem to perform a choreographed dance, ogling men pose no real danger to the naked women they observe, and monsters are entertaining, not scary. They are images of fairy tales without the darkness of the Brothers Grimm.
Staver achieves this fairytale effect in part through her settings, but also through the light that permeates them. Four of her imagined scenes occur in well-lit clearings of thick, leafy forests: Adam and Eve and the Goats, Bathers, Cardinal, and Annunciation 2 (all 2016). Reminiscent of Staver’s northern Minnesota upbringing, these forests locate her pictures in a specific place that might still be inhabited by the figures that populate our imaginations and our myths—where the crowding of trees and the damp ground provide heat, where light flickers, and where the sameness of the landscape allows for secret meetings.
To form these settings full of detail, Staver uses many shades and hues of green and varied brushwork to depict diverse foliage. In Adam and Eve and the Goats, the earth green of the Tree of Knowledge contrasts the deep, mossy green on the ground, giving way to the chartreuse mark in the composition’s center that lights the entire canvas. On Staver’s canvases, the material is light and color, imbuing her pictures with a mood of enchantment. The action occurs in the picture’s foreground, with wooly goats looking on. Adam and Eve are not ashamed of their nakedness (see how Adam, standing contrapposto, holds a goat in his arms and reveals his penis), and their imminent expulsion from Eden is not foreshadowed. There is no Satanic snake on the ground, no proleptic angel Gabriel in the sky; there is no guilt, no remorse. Staver reimagines these stories, especially the role of women, without altering the plot: how could Eve not have reached for that glowing red apple?
Creating light from matter is a kind of alchemy, one that has fascinated Staver throughout her career. In the paintings from 2016, we don’t see the true light source (the moon, the sun, a lamp); instead, we get its reflection or we see its direction coming from offstage illuminating bodies in high contrast. Blonde hair turns white, limbs come into high relief, and patterns turn iridescent in patches, as in Cardinal. A naked woman, a blue sarong falling off her behind, turns to look at the viewer with a slight, satisfied smile. One hand is on the shoulder of the man leading her, on horseback, into the forest. On the other hand rests a red cardinal who also gazes at the viewer. Something about how Staver puts her figures together, how she attaches the limbs to the torso, and the hands and feet to the limbs, is reminiscent of Florine Stettheimer. From her facial features—painted with a thick, Picasso-like line—we understand that this is not a woman taken against her will.
Bathers, one of the standout pictures in this show, demonstrates that Staver is knowingly participating in a conversation with, and commenting on, the paintings made by her (often white, often male) predecessors. With its subject matter, Bathers refers to the popular trope of men painting, or men painting semi-clothed men watching women bathe (see: Titian, Rembrandt, Renoir, Cézanne, Gauguin, Degas, Bonnard, Thompson, etc.). But those who watch Staver’s women are not men; they are fauns: mythological horned half-human, half-goat, creatures. Arranged almost in a circle around the edges of the canvas, they watch without leering, as three women enjoy themselves in brightly illuminated water in the distance. Like Renoir’s, Staver’s figures are not ethereal, but adamantly corporeal, in both paint application and body structure. The image is a window; it seems like a world coming up from behind to meet the surface, pressing up against it.
The gallery’s first room showcases a group of terracotta studies that precede the paintings. In these studies, Staver pinches and attaches, smooths and rubs her material to form Ghiberti-like reliefs, planning out her compositions and discovering how the figures interweave in space. It’s remarkable how few changes Staver makes in transitioning from the Study for Bathers (2016) to the final painting—the composition is set before Staver takes to the canvas. The same can be said of Staver’s transition from terracotta to canvas for David and Goliath and Cardinal, making clear how these shallow sculptures enable Staver to paint complex arrangements of figures—replete with their expressive bodies and faces—on a flat picture plane.
With both her studies and her paintings, Staver materializes images of a world that exists off in the distance, or in the imagination. In reinterpreting the mythic and biblical narratives that have influenced her predecessors, she is able to rise to her own challenge: “to keep myself excited, to keep myself alert
- Interview with Kyle Staver, 2012. http://bit.ly/2d0y7Fx
KATE LIEBMAN is a painter who works in Brooklyn.