What can old and ancient tales of mythology teach us today? It’s a question raised by the art of Kyle Staver, whose recent work is currently on view (through July 24) at Zürcher Gallery in downtown Manhattan. Using a variety of media, Staver riffs on thoroughly trod narratives from Greek and Roman mythology, the Bible, and canonical literature to create witty and visually arresting pictures. In doing so, the artist aims to revitalize these chaotic and fantastical stories, reminding us of their enduring relevance in an age of often suffocating rationality.
This spirit of rejuvenation felt apt as I walked into the Zürcher space on Bleecker Street last week. Though we’re already well into July, a certain vernal feeling is in the air of the New York gallery scene, which is just beginning to break through the frost of coronavirus lockdown. Zürcher Gallery was one of the very first to re-open its doors to the public, and its current exhibition, which originally opened for a brief moment back in early March, hits the right note for the return of in-person viewing.
That’s to say, seeing Staver’s work “in the flesh” is a powerful reminder of just what we’ve been missing these last few months. Her pictures of Medusa and Perseus, Lady Godiva, St. Sebastian’s martyrdom, Shakespeare’s Ophelia, and other mythological characters reproduce well on the screen or printed page, but much of their full power comes from the physical experience. Staver seems to delight in paint qua paint, and her work plays up the magical, luminous potential of her chosen media. “Magical”? Ye of little faith, Staver is a believer. Her work reminds us why the Ovidian, metamorphic impulse has stimulated the imagination of some of our best painters for centuries.
A case in point is Medusa (2019), one of the six or seven large oil paintings in the exhibition. In it, Perseus holds aloft the titular Gorgon’s decapitated head in his left hand and grips the reins to his horse in his right. Like many of the mythological moments represented in this show, it has been attempted numerous times throughout history, perhaps most notably by the sculptor Benvenuto Cellini in his bronze Perseus with the Head of Medusa (ca. 1545–54). But whereas interpretations such as Cellini’s emphasize a victorious Perseus clutching the snaky locks of his vanquished foe, Staver’s hero is pushed to the extreme left edge of the canvas, and seen only from behind; we are instead drawn immediately to the blood-red discs of Medusa’s accusing eyes. From this focal point our attention disperses along the various radii of Medusa’s snakehead tresses and we begin to realize just how unnatural and disorienting the entire moonlit presentation is. Perseus’s horse, sky-blue, spotted, and blindfolded, takes up nearly the entire right half of the painting—by its sheer size defying rational perspective and natural scale. Posed in direct profile, the horse comes off initially as a totally abstract plane, included out of formal necessity.
The idiosyncratic modernism of Staver’s figuration—mask-like faces, boneless and elastic limbs, glowing and often radiant colors, etc.—lends all her work a certain stylized, illustrative effect. One could imagine a successful book on classical mythology decorated with Staver’s drawing. Illustration, or illustrative quality in painting, often gets a bum rap, as it implies a lack of depth or serious content. But the muscular quality of her plastic and engaging forms pull deeper meaning out of the surface image. It’s also worth considering that a number of modern masters made forays into illustration with great success, blurring and transcending the line between decoration and fine art. Picasso, for instance, illustrated editions of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Aristophanes’ Lysistrata; Matisse illustrated an edition of Joyce’s Ulysses with scenes from Homer’s Odyssey. Both artists clearly exert a strong influence on Staver’s figurative language.
Surrounding most of the large narrative paintings are smaller works in different media—watercolor, pencil sketching, aquatint etching, even a series of sculptural reliefs in fired ceramic—on the same subject. It’s instructive to compare these efforts and note their differences. One senses that Staver uses the different media to isolate certain formal aspects of the picture (composition and line in the pencil drawings, say; tonal drama in the aquatints; local color in the watercolors; spatial plasticity in the reliefs) that are then picked up or tossed out in the “final” large paintings. And yet, despite this apparently laborious preparatory work, the paintings rarely feel “planned” in any traditional sense. Evidence of spontaneous improvisation is ubiquitous in the works’ facture, and one sometimes feels that “pure-painting” discovery plays as important a role in determining the final result as the mythological sources themselves.
Perhaps the strongest work in the exhibition is Ophelia (2020). The large painting shows us Shakesepeare’s drowned heroine floating down a dark blue stream, her lifeless wrists grabbed at and picked up by black swans with radiant orange beaks. The entire picture is seen in near-silhouette, illuminated from behind by an incandescent Kelly Green that peaks through low-hanging willow branches in the background. Again, the subject evokes an art-historical predecessor. This time it’s John Everett Millais’ Ophelia, from 1851–52, a classic example from the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. But despite working in a fanciful, modernistic idiom, Staver bests the uber-naturalistic Millais in capturing both the tragedy of Ophelia’s death and the watery weight of her half-submerged body as “her garments, heavy with their drink,/ Pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay/ To muddy death.”
Interesting formal relationships between figure and environment, and figure and beast, proliferate: see those between the swans’ arcing necks and similar contours in the wrists and elbows of Ophelia, and those between the feathers of the swans’ tails and the fingers of Ophelia’s hands. It’s engrossing to search for these rhymes and resonances in each work. This imaginative intermingling between humans and nature recalls Nietzsche’s vivid description of the mythological mind of ancient Greece, from his essay “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense”:
When every tree can suddenly speak as a nymph, when a god in the shape of a bull can drag away maidens, when even the goddess Athena herself is suddenly seen in the company of Peisastratus driving through the marketplace of Athens with a beautiful team of horses—and this is what the honest Athenian believed—then, as in a dream, anything is possible at each moment, and all of nature swarms around man as if it were nothing but a masquerade of the gods, who were merely amusing themselves by deceiving men in all these shapes.
Through exceedingly individual recreations of a dream-like world where “anything is possible at each moment,” Staver reminds us of the very human, universal, and thus contemporary power of myth. It’s all fine painting, too, so don’t miss this exhibition if you find yourself in Manhattan during these last few days before it closes.