Kyle Staver makes the kind of artwork I want around me: more than simply hang limp on gallery walls, it’s work that tells stories about itself and about us; serious stories related unseriously to an audience that lives in a fully contemporary, complicated world.
Staver’s paintings, prints and reliefs, on view through February at the John Davis Gallery in Hudson play on anxiety but it’s not anxious work. It riffs, lightly, without melodrama, on the forms of “story” that have long anchored history painting: Your typical Titians and Peter Paul Reubens’ that, if you remember, pictured and veiled the moral views of the good life as laid down in Church-sanctioned tales and, more classically, Greek myths.
Consider a triptych entitled “Diane and Acteon”. It plays on the story of the Goddess Diana, the hunter Actaeon and the hunted, eviscerated deer that is actually poor Actaeon changed into an animal for his lewd transgressions. It’s a good candidate for a contemporary take on history painting but the forms have more to do with the proto-modernist un-sexed figure than to Rubens’ odalisques, though, yes, she’s present in the form of the nude Diana. An earlier painting “Feeding the Cockatoo” takes the rape myth and turns it into a more languid story. The broad shouldered male nude is drinking coffee and the cockatoo is waiting patiently for its food. “Trapeze” offers all the violence of bodies falling in dramatic slow motion, something out of the Mad Men promo but the safety net below looks like some Norse god’s ship. The “Falling Man” comes mind as does Eric Fischl’s “Tumbling Woman” and immediately I’m enmeshed in a dialogue about the past decade and more in politics and culture and I’m struck by how our color-coded lives are still embedded in silent forms of terror.
Call this type of story telling the contemporary Baroque. Those picture-stories about heroism, valor and, just as often, tragedy and doomed love are mash-ups of the hyper-violent and the mundane; they play on the larger than life and just as small and they are well on display in Staver’s artwork. Except that the work isn’t doggedly faithful to dull formalisms and tribalisms that are associated with historical typologies in art. Staver’s work turns best on the ironic view that things in the paintings and etchings and outside them could have been different. So while her forest green and dark purple palette is strongly linked to the Baroque, the work made in the real-time today when so much is digital and nakedly conceptual, here’s painting that speaks to our contemporary concerns through figures rendered economically. In so doing it pushes through irony and comes out the other side to something that is sincere, though shorn of the precious.
Staver’s process of making art is a bit like a dialogue through work. Her paintings often work as elaborations of her etchings and prints that, to Staver’s credit, read as hand-drawn forms. That conversation between painting and drawings, sketches or works of art in their work right, is as much a mark of history painting as is the content of her work. But they work as dialogue without pretending that this art or any art can anchor history. In fact, shown next to each other they form a story of their own making and open up some of their secrets to their audience, you.