The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2015

All Issues
OCT 2015 Issue


On View
Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects
September 9 – October 11, 2015
New York

In her paintings and reliefs, Kyle Staver presents simplified, touchingly goofy figures in fraught, mythological circumstances, including a boy hurtling through the stratosphere, having flown too close to the sun, and a woman whose lover is a swan. You also encounter the likes of Pandora, Ganymede, and Saint George and the dragon. The myths are familiar and artists throughout history have retold them, but Staver does so with fresh insight, a 21st-century vernacular, and in a most disarming manner. In her hands, the stories and the art of painting are utterly relevant. The show, divided between two gallery spaces, includes eight large oils, two small clay reliefs, and a watercolor/collage.

Kyle Staver, Leda, 2015. Oil on canvas, 42 × 36 inches. Courtesy the artist.

Icarus (2015) zooms in on the hubris-doomed boy as he plummets, accompanied by a goose, through a pale yellow sky whose puffy, orange-gray clouds subtly suggest a Greek chorus. Icarus fills the frame, falling upside-down with his legs flung out and his feet running at the picture’s top corners, as if seeking a toehold. The composition is as comic as it is emphatic of his plunge. Like many figures in the show and unlike historical paintings on the subject, Icarus is painted in simple but unexpected shapes of rather flat browns. Cartoon characters come to mind, but Staver invites such a suggestion, which playfully exorcises any academic baggage associated with classical mythology, while stopping short of cartoonishness herself. Her economy in handling Icarus’s figure also concentrates the power of the few details she does delineate: his hot-pink and tender purple nipples, which are the only raised brushstrokes in the painting and scream vulnerability; and his astonished face, which resembles a comic-book drawing of a gawky teen. His expression is so evocative that you almost hear him crying, in real despair, “WTF!” Everything in the picture empathetically conveys human frailty, though at the same time humor is present throughout. Staver has a thing for depicting wings that resemble rubber gloves, yet she manages to infuse them with poignancy. Icarus’s wing at the top right is like a blue industrial glove, which echoes his flailing hand and also balances the painting’s otherwise warm palette. His other wing lies near the bottom left edge, looking like a cross between a second blue industrial glove and a baseball mitt poised in futile attempt to catch his and the goose’s fall. Across Icarus’s mid-section is a white band that may represent a belt and amplifies his nakedness; perhaps his tunic was ripped away by the wind. More importantly, this visual division reminds us, amidst the overall exuberance of the painting, of his imminent, body-breaking fate.

Two related items provide insight into Staver’s process. First, a small clay relief, Study for Icarus (2015), reveals her fruitful way of composing a similar image in three dimensions, resulting in an entirely other delightful piece. Second, an earlier version of the painting is printed in the exhibition catalogue, letting you track certain changes. These are mainly that Icarus’s nipples and face are much more explicit in the final version, he and the goose now overlap—entwine, it feels—and the goose’s legs double as spears into its own flesh. All of the revisions increase sympathy; for Icarus, who is no longer as alone, for the hapless goose, and for every one of us, represented as we are by these figures.

In the myth of Leda, Zeus appears as a swan in order to seduce her, and in paintings by Rubens (after Michelangelo) and Correggio, which Staver, an art history aficionado, surely knows, the swan is positioned between Leda’s legs, implying rape. Staver’s Leda (2015), in contrast, shows a super-long-limbed Leda sleeping under trees and luminous moonlight, tenderly holding the slender, bright orange leg of the swan, which sits upright next to her. She’s so relaxed in affection and rest that it seems like consensual sex took place. Meanwhile, Zeus—in every way tense—eyes his wing, which looks like an erect rubber glove with eight ridiculous fingers. Staver has taken back the night for Leda, perhaps depicting Zeus in a moment of sexual performance anxiety. The painting is so funny, sympathetic, and harmonious that it’s like a profound love poem for absolutely everyone, Zeus included.

Even before you enter the mythological world in this and Staver’s other paintings, you register singing color, astounding light, sensuous materiality, and deft composition. Her formal command, like her sympathy as a storyteller, is clearly a product of lived experience and earns trust. These qualities, plus ever-present joy and ever-absent irony (so refreshing!), work a kind of contrapuntal magic with her intentionally clunky, stretched, and otherwise distorted characters in their faux Arcadias and other far-fetched settings. What great stand-ins for flawed, tragic, lovable us and our messed-up, bewildering, beauteous world.


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2015

All Issues