Kyle Staver: Into the Mythological Zone

For many years painter Kyle Staver has crafted warm-hearted paintings that gracefully recall private moments tinged with joie de vivre. Domesticated couples appear as broadly brushed nudes in connubial situations. Other figures, often modeled on friends and family, are rendered with affection. Intimacy and nostalgia pervade Staver's settings: they are the bedrooms, gardens and seashores of her memory. Her friend and fellow artist Thomas Wharton has this to say about Staver's paintings: "They contain the joy of being alive."


Feeding the Cockatoo, 2009 oil on linen 48 x 56 inches

In a small exhibition of recent paintings and reliefs at the John Davis Gallery in New York striking new developments are apparent. The joy in Staver's work is still there, but it has been overshadowed by fresh ingredients: mythological storylines and tragic overtones. To put it another way, her work has broadened tremendously and taken on universal themes. "I want to talk about everything now," Staver told me during a recent phone interview, "absolutely everything."


Kyle Staver: photo by Janice Nowinski

The darkening of Staver's tone has come gradually. Grief appeared as a key ingredient in the 2007 triptych Staver dedicated to her late biker brother, and the young hunters of her 2009 "Christmas Lake Turtle Hunt" have an unmistakable masculine menace about them. As Staver acknowledges, maturity and experience have challenged her. "As a child I thought nothing bad could ever happen," Staver comments. "Over time we get disavowed of that."

Along with permissioning herself to take on darker material, Staver also decided to begin with much broader, more durable subject matter: mythology. "When I started painting," Staver explains, "I would try and take something unique and personal and turn it into myth. I would go from the specific to the universal. Now I am starting directly with myth: I have flipped it."

The centerpiece of the Davis Gallery exhibition is "Diana and Actaeon," a triptych based on a Greek myth from Ovid's "Metamorphoses." In a sequence of three canvasses - meant to be read from left to right - the triptych narrates the harrowing tale of a young hunter who accidentally comes across the goddess of the hunt as she bathes in the forest. What happens next is both grim and inevitable.


Diane & Actaeon, 2012, oil on linen, 68 x 154 inches (detail)
In the left panel of the triptych Actaeon appears on horseback, an intent figure who has the blonde hair and ruffled shirtsleeves of a Disney prince. "I'm a grown up girl," Staver explains, "and creating fairy tales give us the ability to fulfill our fantasies. As I painted Actaeon I asked myself: who would he be?" Mounted on a dark stallion and surrounded by his loyal dogs, Actaeon just has been stopped in his tracks by the accidental revelation of Diana's beauty. He is part hero, part tragic figure, part cliché.


Diane & Actaeon, 2012, oil on linen, 68 x 154 inches (detail)

In the central panel Diana, a cubist bombshell with a well-lit and prominent ass, perches on a leopard skin as a frightened nymph cowers beneath her. She isn't pleased about having her nudity revealed to a stranger, but it is still apparent that she is in control of the situation. Female subjects like Diana are rich material for Staver, as they allow her to re-investigate myths from a woman's point of view. Diana activates this painting: a job she shares with the woman who painted her.


Diane & Actaeon, 2012, oil on linen, 68 x 154 inches (detail)
In the third and final image, Actaeon -- now transformed into a stag with one splash of Diana's bathwater -- is torn to shreds by his own dogs. It is the most abstract and ambiguous of the three scenes. Since Staver feels that humor is a necessary element that can be mixed with tragedy, the image is also just a bit funny. The dogs, who have morphed from loyal hounds in the first panel to snarling assassins in the third are intentionally cartoony, even absurd. "For me," Staver notes, "there are even elements of humor in Picasso's Guernica."

As she worked on the triptych Staver was certainly aware that she was dealing with a subject that the Venetian master Titian once painted, but her painting handling is distinctly contemporary. In a 2010 review, Roberta Smith commented that there is "more than a hint of Wallace and Gromit in her (Staver's) slightly rubbery figures." In fact, it is exactly that idiosyncratic and humorous sense of stylization that adds oxygen to Staver's art.


Diane & Actaeon 1, 2012, ceramic 14 x 10 inches
Since Roberta Smith has compared Staver's figures to claymation characters it is interesting to find that Staver actually does build ceramic maquettes for her paintings: they help her work out compositional problems and plan lighting. The models for "Diana and Actaeon" are on display at the Davis Gallery, and they are very revealing and charming on their own terms.

By making the decision to flip into the mythological zone, Staver has joined a long list of artists -- Rembrandt and Titian for example -- whose mid-career work took on the universal and attempted to personalize and particularize. By taking on tragic themes -- as in her triptychs -- Staver says she is attempting to "up the ante" for herself as an artist. "Every once in a awhile I get in that trouble," she explains. If anything, the "trouble" seems to be that the joie de vivre in her work has been kicked up a notch, and her fantasy id has been unleashed.

 In other recent canvasses there are other mesmerizing, powerful nude women along the lines of Diana: Lady Godiva on her horse, and Europa on her bull for example. Actaeon isn't the only man in harm's way: Staver's 2012 canvas "Prometheus" shows the Greek Titan splayed over a rock as Zeus -- in the form of an eagle -- swoops in to peck at his liver. Staver's mythological actors are completely outside the domestic zone of safety that characterized her earlier paintings. Removed from the womb-like protection of their homes, Staver's women use their allure to control, and her men literally get chewed to pieces. The mythological zone is a very tough place, a very bad neighborhood.

When I asked Staver if her recent paintings were in any way commentaries on the times we live in, she had this to say: "Everybody -- every culture -- has some story about where we come from. These are lessons. I want to reflect more and more of these lessons in my paintings as a form of exploration. I think I use the triptych format to get myself into trouble: to bite off more than I can chew. We live in dangerous times and I want my work to reflect that anxiety."

 Kyle Staver, Paintings, Prints, Reliefs
Jan 31 - Feb 24, 2013
John Davis Gallery 362 1/2 Warren Street
 Hudson, New York 12534