Whether the theme is love, war, or death, myths have provided artists a rich source of visual and conceptual material for millennia. The beauty lies in part in their malleability. Generation after generation, such stories prove to be fitting vehicles for exploring current political issues and events. About a decade ago, New York–based painter Kyle Staver (b. 1953) shifted from portraying domestic tableaux drawn from her own life to employing myths and legends, often foregrounding the role of female protagonists. In such works, she has maintained her distinctive style, in which chunky, monumental figures (the artist began her career, in Minnesota in the 1970s, as a sculptor) inhabit compositions that have some relation to the rigorous, atmospheric work of the late figurative painter Lennart Anderson (a mentor of hers) and often convey a subtle humor.
Her recent show at Zürcher comprised twelve large oil paintings, a selection of related works on paper, and six small clay reliefs. The reliefs were titled as studies for Staver’s paintings, even if in some instances—according to the dates, as John Yau pointed out on Hyperallergic—she made them afterward. In the painting Swan Flight (2017), a coral-colored woman rides a swan through a misty sky dense with pink clouds. She, the swan, and the swans behind them are seen head-on and meet the viewer’s gaze. They appear strong and determined yet peaceful, the image providing a counterpoint to the celebrations of heroism and violence often found in mythical depictions. Staver’s portrayal of light enhances the otherworldliness of her scenes; Swan Flight seems to display a kind of shimmer, with bright pink streaks and white touches defining various contours in the composition.
Exaggerated poses, inventive color combinations, and stylized features give Staver’s figures a cartoonlike quality that at once underscores the fictive aspect of the material and provides a kind of tension with the seriousness of some of the scenes. In Lobster (2017), a merman forcefully grabs the arm of a mermaid, who appears to gasp as she looks up at a screaming gull swooping down on the scene. A number of works depict such grabbing and groping, and seem particularly charged at this moment in which waves of individuals are rising up to expose sexual abuse and misconduct. Venus and Adonis (2017) features Venus grasping the chest of her unrequited love, while a clay study for a painting that wasn’t included in the exhibition, The Temptation of St. Anthony, depicts two naked women fondling St. Anthony.
One difficulty with narrative painting is that the story at hand can subsume the work’s formal properties. Indeed, to get the balance right is one of the artist’s main challenges. Too much bravura will obscure the story, while too great an emphasis on narrative details can turn the image into an illustration. After decades in the studio, Staver has achieved this elusive but intensely rewarding equilibrium. She is able to make even the most familiar tale seem fresh, instilling her work with a genuine sense of joy and discovery.