Narrative Painting Part II: Kyle Staver at Kent Fine Art

Sept 9 - Oct 22, 2016

Adam and Eve and the Goats, 2016, Oil on canvas, 54 x 64 in.

Staver creates a palette so disciplined and toned down that the light glaring or filtering in, catching an edge of a knife or the side of a goat or a swan or a cardinal’s breast or a shoulder, is startlingly lifelike and shows a very particular moment in time—not an easy thing to pull off in paint. I’m reminded of the slanting light in October in New York and the darker shadows. The photos, by equalizing the tones, simply can’t do them justice.

The paintings depict Greek and Roman myths and biblical (Old Testament) subjects. This is a combination that artists worked with in the Renaissance (presumably shown in different venues though?) and that I’ve never questioned. They seemed to go together pretty well in art history classes, but considering it now on seeing this show, it doesn’t seem so obvious. Aren’t these two opposing belief systems?

Or maybe they aren’t, they are stories and belong to all of us when we need them.

“The truth is, it is the myths that are still out there waiting to wake us and be seen by us, like a tree waiting to greet our newly opened eyes.” – Roberto Calasso, “The Myth of Cadmus and Harmony”

The Garden of Eden section of the Bible is too short—the myths flesh it out. Not that they describe a peaceful perfect world but particularly in Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” we are in a fluid relationship with the plants, the animals and the stars—not cast out as self-conscious sinners who can never return. For me the Garden of Eden seems to be my own early childhood, before shit happened and before I became aware that the world contained suffering on the scale that it does.

John Yau, writing in Hyperallergic, reads Staver’s interpretations as leaving the door open for other possible outcomes—a delightful idea that Hero rises to the top instead of falling, Goliath doesn’t fall down dead, Adam and Eve don’t eat the apple—no serpent in Stavers’ picture entices them either—and they feed the apple to their friendly goats.

Of course if Adam and Eve didn’t eat the apple and feed it to the goats, it’s hard to explain human and goat behavior. Goats are a symbol of Satan too, though, and so—it’s all so confusing. And would such an afternoon pleasure be told and retold?

And for the rest of my wanderings through the gallery and ever since, I have been considering two problems in revisiting the myths as subject matter for painting.

The first is—are we familiar enough with the stories for them to be meaningful to us? The second is that ours is a literal age, overrun with fundamentalists and I’m not just talking about the religious ones—we seem to have trouble understanding metaphor. Oh, that’s actually a third problem.

David and Goliath, 2016 Oil on canvas 52 x 58 in.

David and Goliath, 2016 Oil on canvas 52 x 58 in.

The story of David and Goliath is a nasty episode. It’s about a continuing war and a jealous king and competitive brothers–not just heroism and grateful accolades as presented in Sunday school; it’s richer but sadder. Staver does not show the complexity or bring the story symbolically into the present (except for that Wusthof Classic Chef knife), it’s just a boy throwing a rock at a guy, but nonetheless she has sent this viewer through a convoluted thought experiment on what these stories might still mean to us. Palestinian children throwing stones at the Israeli soldiers? Oy veh.

Narcissus, 2016 Oil on canvas 54 x 58 in.

Narcissus, 2016 Oil on canvas 54 x 58 in.

Or Narcissus? It seems to have nothing to do with the myth of Narcissus. The main character in the painting is a woman, and though she gazes at a muddied picture of herself in a pool, she’s surrounded by swans—a symbol of love and devotion. I don’t think she’ll stay there long. In this painting Staver drains the meaning from a myth that is still resonating strongly in contemporary life.

Rightly or wrongly, this disappointed me. “Narcissism” is one of the most common lay diagnoses of what’s wrong with our social life today—not as a description of a person in love with their own appearance or one to feel pity for but rather as some combination of the following psychological definition (1) or the psychoanalytic one (2).

  1. extreme selfishness, with a grandiose view of one’s own talents and a craving for admiration, as characterizing a personality type.
  2. self-centeredness arising from failure to distinguish the self from external objects, either in very young babies or as a feature of mental disorder.

What a knowledge of the full story of this myth could add to the contemporary discussion is that narcissism is a curse, a tragedy for those who suffer it as well as those around them. The Gods took such pity on the poor fool; they turned him into a flower.

That’s what I love about Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” which I can almost say is my religion—yes, I am a Metamorphosian! Because it animates the natural world and if you do a heroic deed or love too much or a god treats you really badly or you do a stupid tragic thing like not being able to tear yourself away from looking at your own image, you might be changed into a tree or an animal or a constellation.

Narcissus

Narcissus

– CNQ