Thursday, May 17, 2012

Wherefore the Figure, Wherefore the Self

By Carl Belz

Of all the subjects available to painting, subjects ranging from stripes and squares to fields of color, from landscape vistas and city streets to ordinary objects close at hand, none is brought to the task of expression with more baggage than the human figure. Understandably so, for even while modernism has stripped narrative from painting, the figure projects a story simply by being there before us, being our other, being our mirror. Understandably, too, despite what the figure’s been put through in order for painting to accommodate it, the fragmentations and distortions and attenuations, the flattening and reshaping of it into images we may not recognize in the mirror but in which we are nonetheless compelled to acknowledge our reflection. Whatever its story, then, and however it appears, the figure verifies our being in the world and substantiates our claim to possessing identity as an individualized self.

Yet there’s no easy-to-follow recipe for meeting the challenges to expression that attend figure painting. Some of those are internal, others come with the territory—like the challenge of competition. Half a century ago Pop and Minimalism gave us a new art that was fast and immediate, that delivered its message in a single and unequivocal flash, that could grab and momentarily hold attention in the media-saturated culture with which it suddenly found itself in competition. That competition continues with a vengeance today. Think of the visual culture we each day everywhere encounter, think of its irresistible formal allure, think of its insistent and instantly gratifying punch, and think, too, about the vehicle bearing all that meaning—think about the human figure, how over-the-top appealing it is, how shaped to perfection, how sexy and engaging, then think about competing with that! Just remember in the process never to underestimate your opponent.

Of course it’s the internal challenges that remain after the dust stirred by the battle for media attention has settled—the challenge to be good instead of merely interesting, for instance, or the challenge to be original, or the challenge to plumb the inarticulate speech of the heart. Risk attends those challenges, for the ever-elusive and evolving self that elects to confront them may in the process be laid bare, its vulnerabilities, along with its strengths, exposed. A will to meaning via the human figure—the figure first and foremost as a source of meaning—is in turn required: meaning as it is felt to be embodied in painting’s history, at once acknowledging its achievement and also seeking continuity with it; and meaning as it is shaped anew within the limits of modern secular experience by the expressive free-agent self. Freedom within limits, which is to say freedom bound to and by responsibility. More directly, perhaps, than modern paintings based on other subjects—it’s a matter of degree, not kind—modern paintings based on the figure nudge us in the direction of moral propositions.

Kyle Staver’s is an ample world, generous in accommodating couples and individuals who are self-contained without being self-absorbed, figures comfortable with themselves and equally comfortable with one another. As couples, they’re pleasurably involved in life’s daily routines—feeding the pet, tasting the morning tea, reading the paper—or sharing a leisurely outing—riding bicycles, ice skating. Along with them, though not in their immediate company, individual female figures occasionally appear: Danae, Europa, Lady Godiva, subjects drawn from myth and legend, subjects famously imaged by Old Masters, subjects identified with the sensuous delights of the human body—subjects here brought freshly forth and ingenuously re-presented as engaging whimsical fantasies. At ease in their surroundings, they signal the ease with which Staver navigates between art’s past and present. For past and present are in her world continuous, history representing not a burden but an inspiration, not a source of irony but of sustenance, as if in that world the making of new art constantly rewrites art’s past and revitalizes it in the present, as if that process not only shapes and defines that world but is entirely natural to it—as natural for those who inhabit it as breathing the salubrious air within it. A recent picture of Adam and Eve notwithstanding, Staver’s pictorial world is overall more Arcadian than Edenic.
Kyle Staver, Danae and the Parakeet, 2009, oil on linen, 63 x 53 inches.
Kyle Staver, Godiva, 2009, oil on linen, 58 x 68 inches.
Kyle Staver, Adam and Eve with Goats, 2011, oil on linen, 56 x 64 inches.
Staver herself seems to breathe art. She’s an art maven who regularly posts albums on Facebook, images clustered around a theme or subject plucked for sheer delectation from what appears to be a vast storehouse of pictorial memories. Not surprisingly, their inspiration echoes in her own images, though more faintly now than even a few years ago. Writing about the work in 2008, Karen Wilkin accurately associated Staver’s intimate domestic settings with Pierre Bonnard and her broadly brushed figures with David Park. In newer pictures, the intimacy continues, but with fewer incidental details, and the breadth, previously concentrated in the figures, increasingly spreads across the entire surface and more effectively integrates them with the natural or domestic spaces they occupy. The resulting pictures seem more whole, more clearly and fully meant, more her own. One of them audaciously shows two nude boys playing with turtles by a stream, an unmistakable iconographic homage to Matisse, but thereby also a statement about paintings intended not for momentary satisfaction but to stay the course.
Kyle Staver, Feeding the Cockatoo, 2009, oil on linen, 56 x 48 inches.
Kyle Staver, Releasing the Catfish, 2011, oil on canvas, 64 x 54 inches.
Kyle Staver, Skaters, 2009, oil on linen, 50 x 50 inches.
About a century ago, in Paris, Ranier Maria Rilke memorably became aware of how many faces there are and decided, “There are quantities of human beings, but there are many more faces, for each person has several.” Anne Harris knows what Rilke was talking about. She paints faces, bodies too, but even her bodies resemble faces in the way they tell stories, each one different, each compelling in its own way, each face and body reflecting a facet of the self within, the modern self ever questing on its own to know its ever-evolving identity. Some of her faces belong to adolescent girls, some to other women, but all of them, at the beginning and in the end, are essentially self-portraits—self-portraits not in any conventional sense, for they’re not likenesses, rather self-portraits ontologically, in the way they function within our experience of them, in the way that that experience can be said to yield knowledge of them, of ourselves, of our world.
Anne Harris, Angel,  2007, oil on linen, 44 x 30 inches.
Anne Harris, Portrait (Beaded Dress), 2000, oil on canvas, 36 x 30 inches.
Anne Harris, Portrait (Blonde), 2003, 12 x 12 inches.
Anne Harris, Portrait (Pearls), 2001, oil on canvas, 36 x 30 inches.
Anne Harris, Portrait (Pink Eyelid), 2010, oil on linen over panel, 11 x 8 inches.
Anne Harris, Portrait (Red Robe) - in progress, 2010, oil on linen, 52 x 33 inches. 
The identity quest we track in Anne Harris’s pictures is a challenge comprising conflicts and contradictions. Each figure is isolated, presented to us front and center, facing us but without seeing us, looking through us or past us, trance-like, as if in a world of her own, a world that is not a place but a vaporous and abstract pictorial substance, emptied of things, out of which she magically emerges, becomes momentarily focused, and into which she just as magically then dissolves. She may wear a brocade or satin dress, she may be draped in pearls or a velvet robe, her skin may glow through delicate layers of thinned oil pigment, and she may be rendered with the patiently exquisite touch of the Northern Old Masters the artist so deeply and abidingly admires, but she is otherwise a spectral nightmare, grotesque, misshapen, hideous to behold—her image sears our vision yet leaves us enthralled, unable to take our eyes from her.

Harris’s challenge to painting reminds me of Faulkner’s challenge to literature, which was, “The only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself.” As to her pictures being self-portraits, I think of them sometimes when I look in the mirror and wonder if I’m seeing my better self or my own worst enemy—which is when I realize her pictures know me the way I know myself.

Carl Belz is Director Emeritus of the Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University.


Mark Warren said...

You are exactly right Mr. Belz. With the plethora of empty abstraction and commentary on our consumer culture there is a real lack of human meaning. All this "critical" work exposing our empty culture is just adding to it's demise. Technology is not art. But this is a difficult position to hold without seeming a reactionary. We need meaning, human meaning.

Anonymous said...

This format feels so natural, as if you are sitting down and having a conversation with Carl about a particular topic. It is refreshingly open, insightful and so inviting. As I always say after having read anything here by the formidable Mr. Belz, more, more!

Craig said...

Beautiful writing. Kyle Stavely's work is a real find, both familiar and completely fresh.
Speaking to Mark, above, I think you're misreading the essay to consider it a rejection of abstraction and criticality. Isn't it merely a recognition of the problematics and pleasures of representing the figure? The lack of human meaning, if such exists, is an entirely other issue and not necessarily to be found by representing them.