By DAVID JAGER February 1, 2024
To look at a Kyle Staver painting is to step into a visual space that is serenely otherworldly. Through her years of painterly practice, Staver has established her own peaceable domain, an aesthetic realm inimitable as it is ineffable. A narrative and figurative painter, she is also an accomplished stylist, bringing a modernist and witty, if not downright funny, sensibility to her canvases that makes her work squarely contemporary. There isn’t really anyone who paints like her, and she has been doing so, steadily, for decades.
Myth and fairy tale is the domain of Staver’s current show at Half Gallery, eleven paintings of Amazon women archers, mermaids; Goldilocks and the three bears; Mary Howitt’s ‘Spider’; death and the maiden and two paintings devoted to sleeping beauty and prince charming. Taken altogether we have the sense of a separate cosmology built out of her whimsical and stylistic imagination, which nonetheless prove to have deeper aesthetic, if not metaphysical resonance. You can also read into each work aesthetically, allegorically or psychologically, and the effort is always rewarding.
Staver’s fairy tale figures live in a world sweetly naive as it is liminal - they are most certainly in the dream time. Yet they also have a chunky weightiness, an echo of School of Paris modernism that she manages to make her own. Her sensuous palette of bold and pastel colors, also unique, almost recall Max Beckmann’s love of contrastive color and outline. A common tension in Stavers’ painting is the way in which her formal and compositional styling almost threatens to overwhelm the narrative and figurative elements. Even so, she manages this balancing act in a way that makes it seem effortless.
Nevertheless, a subtle tug of war continuously takes place between each painting’s stylistic, symbolic and narrative elements, which gives each one a subtle drama. “Sleeping Beauty”, which catches the princess at the moment of her awakening, is also a complex formal arrangement of geometric shape and texture. The rosy triangle of her princess gown, oddly stiff and flat, is punctuated by a burst of blue birds flying upwards, who in their geometric simplicity are strongly reminiscent of late Braque. In the meantime, the princess’ dress is draped over an almost abstract field of scrawled flowers in dark reds and browns- she appears to be lying on a bed of them- while the prince, resplendent in mint green, offsets the primary colors of rose and cerulean. The motifs of reawakening and joyous rebirth are so overdone in the composition as to be almost silly, but Staver is in on the joke. She gives the jaunty prince a ridiculously long green feather in his hat. A blob of white cloud and comically solemn horse look on from the background.
Humor is a potent weapon in the Staver’s painterly arsenal. Her portrayal of Goldilocks awakening amongst the three bears verges on the cartoonishly funny. Her look of consternation amid the three glowering bears almost brings a Far Side panel to mind. But the composition is also anxiety-provoking, as Staver manages to rekindle our childlike curiosity in that moment of the fairytale. I remember being a deeply curious about this story as a kid. To further underscore the drama of the moment, Staver paints the baby bear looking directly at us with its claw bared, as if to warningly say “Look away!” Staver helps us relive the instant when the comforts of home are suddenly upended by the terrors of the natural and outside world. Perhaps her paintings aren’t as naïve as they appear.
Staver’s similar flirtation with depth and terror are echoed in her painting “Death and The Maid”, which appears to be a cryptic mirror of her Sleeping Beauty painting. A skeletal death cradles a maid in a field of oranges and autumnal browns, one bony hand cups her breast while another smooths her hair. Death looks as if he is lulling the maid, tenderly if not erotically, to sleep. Oddly the face of the maid in profile is almost identical to the profile of sleeping beauty being awakened. Being kissed back to life or cradled into sleep by death: in Staver’s world both events are bookends of the same mythical cycle. Maybe one is not so different than the other.
Femininity and feminine identity do seem to emerge as a theme this show, viewed as they are through the lens of fairy tale and myth. Her Amazons, atop their horses with bows drawn and riding into battle, are studies in feminine resilience and strength. Her Goldilocks, on the other hand addresses girlhood fears of welcome and safety in the home. Her Sleeping Beauty paintings allegorize girlhood fantasies of ideal love. Death and the Maiden speaks to fears surrounding budding womanhood, sexuality and death.
There are also moments of feminine ambiguity. Her female spider, who she has gifted with a female torso and face, is serene while her victim, a mustachioed fly, seems deeply perturbed. He appears to be asking “Why must it be this way?”. Painted by Staver it’s a parable of the mating dance. The same ambiguity appears in ‘Mermaid’, where a mermaid embraces a drowning woman. Mythically beautiful but sexually unavailable, the mermaid has always been a symbol of feminine beauty, seductiveness, and danger. Her pairing with the woman- an allegory of narcissism or self-idealization perhaps- is painted by Staver as a dangerous folie a deux, as the rather horrible face of her drowning woman attests.
Staver’s preferred figuration, it seems, are couples that bring to life mythical situations that nonetheless have deep human import. They are beautifully modulated tableaux, replete with whimsy, paradox and irony, that speak to difficult and ambiguous areas of human experience. As much as they hail from the serene world of dream and myth, they have quite a lot to say about the truth of our souls. Kyle Staver: Truth Be Told is on view at Half Gallery through February 7, 2024. WM
David Jager is an arts and culture writer based in New York City. He contributed to Toronto's NOW magazine for over a decade, and continues to write for numerous other publications. He has also worked as a curator. David received his PhD in philosophy from the University of Toronto in 2021. He also writes screenplays and rock musicals.view all articles from this author