Hail the High Priestess: Kyle Staver and the Cult of Painting
Kyle Staver: Tall Tales at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects
September 9 to October 11, 2015
208 Forsyth Street, between Houston and Stanton streets
(also on view at 237 Eldridge Street)
New York City, 917-861-7312
This author hereby posits the existence of a Cult of Painting. Its adherents don’t call it that, or think of themselves as cultists, necessarily. But it operates akin to the manner of the ancient mystery religions. The insiders engage in arcane discussions. They both revere and debate the tradition, hoping to squeeze new insights out of it. There is pleasure and pain, if only of the visual kind. They practice metaphorical or actual drunkenness as a sacrament. I could name several high priestesses – Jackie Saccoccio, Carrie Moyer, and Elisabeth Condon are among those whose works I have contemplated – but on the occasion of her current exhibition at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects, I hail the highness of Kyle Staver.
When I recently wrote a TIP for artcritical.com for her show, saying that not since Lester Johnson had anyone gotten such mileage out of mythology, I had no idea that Johnson was Staver’s teacher at Yale. Johnson spent much of the 1960s incorporating classical imagery into his work, including several treatments of the Three Graces. I’m no oracle, but we aspirants (I’ll admit to membership in the cult) sometimes get impressions through mysterious channels. I think of Lennart Anderson painting beautifully despite the aging of his eyes. Staver is a longtime friend of Anderson’s and has sat for him regularly. She’ll inherit his mighty powers, as disciples are said to receive a guru’s by supernatural transmission.
Not that she paints like him. Her style harkens back to Bay Area Figuration, in particular the triumphs of David Park. One canvas from 2011 at Steven Harvey, Releasing the Catfish, shows a woman in a bathtub-like rowboat giving the day’s catch back to the lake as seagulls loom in the foreground. Park’s work went from intimiste to iconic over the course of his heartbreakingly short career. Staver has long felt compelled to retell her family’s stories, iconically in their way, but not so much as to defeat all the specifics. At the same time she brandishes what I regard as the mark of a true colorist: her luminous grays – such as the slate-colored water, the shadows on the gulls, the fish’s scales, and the boater’s bikini – appear as full-blown hues, not mere tints of black.
In her more recent paintings, mythology supplies enough storyline to give her figures, soaked in a vat of Cubism just long enough to become delightfully rubbery, something to do. Alexi Worth’s catalogue opens with a quote from the artist, “Oh no, none of that matters. I don’t care about mythology.” Worth protests, “…it’s clear that Staver does care about these ancient stories, cares passionately enough to re-imagine them again and again.” I counter in turn: take her at her word. Her Leda (2015), far from depicting a seduction or a rape, is a moonlit scene of post-coital bliss with a handsome waterfowl. They even put a checkered picnic blanket down. Staver, like Park in his late years, felt a need to escape domestic subject matter, and legends provided her a way forward. They otherwise retain the deliciously lazy atmosphere that characterizes her pictures from the 2000s of couples bathing and hanging around the house.
In the work of Johnson, mythology carries dire psychological urgency. Staver draws sweeter water from the same well. The cartoon-like elegance of her rendering retains its carefree joy even when tackling the subject of Ganymede (2015), for which she produced a magnificent canvas of a gigantic eagle dangling a youth who elongates in a royal-blue sky full of cottonball clouds. It’s vertiginous, but the boy’s expression is coolly bemused and the eagle’s is, at worst, cranky.
A simultaneous and revelatory show of Bob Thompson (whose influence Staver acknowledges) and the madcap Louis Eilshemius at Michael Rosenfeld Gallery prompts me to wonder if there’s a mythological-modernist tradition that we ought to consider more thoroughly, with Staver as its current chief practitioner. While some curator works on that, the painters continue their contemplative rites. Days ago I witnessed a conversation between fellow painters on social media in which Shaun Ellison said that “all art making is like exorcism” to which Frankie Gardiner recalled words of Philip Guston:”The difficulties begin when you understand what it is that the soul will not permit the hand to make.” Peter Shear then added wisdom from Picasso, “If we give spirits a form, we become independent.”
And all these are truths, as far as the Cult is concerned.