John Davis Gallery: Kyle Staver: Paintings, Prints, Reliefs Jan 31- Feb 24, 2013 back
oil on canvas
68 x 58 inches
Today, when a painter revisits the work of the masters, it’s liable to be with a wink and a nod. This is the postmodernist era, after all, and many artists today are less interested in revitalizing traditional means of expression—as did Matisse and de Kooning—than in probing the very phenomenon of expression itself: its effects, customs, and social uses.
Some contemporary painters, however, continue to look to the masters' for the authenticity and power of their expressions. Among them is Kyle Staver, whose recent work is now on view at John Davis Gallery in Hudson, NY. The twenty works in the exhibition include prints and relief sculptures, but the artist’s paintings dominate with her signature brushy attack of intense colors and exaggerated, almost loopy shapes. Staver's footloose celebration of the visual world rejects conventional sentiment in favor of immediate experience; the haunches of a horse and a human are liable to circulate with equal poise, located by rhythmic necessity rather than anatomical accuracy. Her paintings have always uncannily blended the improvisational and the astute, but some of these latest works present, to me, a new level of formal vigor—and the exhilarating prospect of a very good painter becoming even better.
Staver’s current motifs draw upon historical precedents, such as the mythological dramas employed by Titian, and the domestic scenes explored by Bonnard. What’s crucial, however, about her enthusiasm for such masters is not the borrowed subject matter, nor her evocative technique, but the way she uses the same language—painting’s unique, elemental discipline of line and color—to suit her own purposes. Her scenes are driven by daunting possibilities: how to make figures lean and arc with the inevitability of Veronese’s “Mars and Venus,” or unwind, with the dreamy ponderousness of Bonnard’s visions of Marthe in the tub.
The artist's gifts as a colorist have long been evident, but the latest paintings show a new resolve to focus the force of color with drawing—“drawing” considered here not as academic modeling but as a momentum of design leading the eye from mass to detail, from supporting foil to climactic note. In the left canvas of the tripdych “Diana and Actaeon” (2012), for instance, the bulk of a black horse rises before our point of view, culminating in its head, hanging at our eye level, close enough to touch. Leaning away is the horse’s rider, Actaeon, his face a distant point beyond the intervening notes of deep, earthy green, ochre-orange, and sienna-brown. Above, on an errand of its own, a massive red-orange branch lumbers in the opposite direction of the tightened reins. Far below, the horse’s legs descend into depths of verdant green, from which sprout several hounds, their lifted, quivering ears catching the light.
Stare, and absorb the movements of color, and it becomes apparent that each element has found its singular character within a breathing, elastic whole. The brushwork is indulgent, the distortions almost goofy, but the image unfolds according to taut, comprehensive rhythms. And these continue to unfold: consider how one of the horse’s legs curls curiously backward, looping like an elephant’s trunk; though illogical, it occupies an indispensable place among the hounds’ teeming bodies. It also encompasses a circle of equal size to the rider’s head, and the relationship between the two—proximate, yet so distanced by the journeys among horse, dogs, and figure—becomes another story within the larger tale.
The compositions in the other two panels unfold according to new rules. The luminously fleshy Diana dominates the middle canvas, the orangey-pink tints of her skin contrasting with deep surrounding greens. Staver finds just the right buoyancy for the lights, maintaining colorfulness across even such great leaps in tone. She imparts equal mobility to a sequence of near-black darks—deepest blue, brown and yellow-green—below the figure.
The right panel defies conventional, perspective space, its height filled with the arcing form of a stag set upon by hounds. It isn’t clear whether its body hangs from the top, or lies prone on the ground, but this hardly matters: the exposure of its curving back, punctuated by ovals of gnashing teeth and its own, small tail, incarnates the horrific narrative of the myth.
Staver has cited Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) as an influence, and in her best paintings one finds the same appetite for sensation and its fulfillment in weighty, luminous pattern. By comparison, Staver’s images show a wittier intimacy, taking advantage of some of the liberating tenets of modernism: expressive brushwork that calls attention to itself, and the rejection of conventional, “realistic” space. (Although, arguably, the self-taught Courbet had already disowned academic notions of space.) But the most crucial quality the two share is the bringing of motifs to their full, varied character through forces of drawing and color.
The dozen etchings and linocuts in the exhibition reveal that, deprived of color, Staver’s images still pack a punch. In these, too, light reveals gesture, which in turn imparts attitude. The rich tones of “Big Godiva” (etching and aquatint, 2009) build towards a climactic note, as generalized forms of horse and rider—the latter strikingly raked by light—lead to Godiva’s confident, upturned face.
Somewhat less compelling for me are the several relief sculptures in the exhibition. These pieces, which mold in plaster the same compositions as some of the paintings, appeal for their quirky, earnest physicality. For me, however, they tend to have less formal momentum than her paintings.
One or two other painting, too, didn’t quite meet the very high level set by “Diana and Actaeon.” But “Trapeze” (2012) surely does. This extraordinary canvas catches every bit of the zany drama of its exotic subject. Here, two suspended acrobats regard each other across a deep blackness (though, against the high tints of skin, the dark somehow feels fully charged). A tumble of forms, the two seem awkwardly, haplessly frozen by the blaze of a spotlight, and yet somehow destined to triumph, every fluke of their contours anticipating their aerial meeting. Echoing one acrobat’s back, the great sweep of a net curls into the distance below. Further away still, the spotlight illuminates a circle of tiny audience members. The image is exultant, unlikely, heart-stopping—the perfect metaphor, as it happens, for the act of painting.