Friday, October 31, 2014

Interview with Kyle Staver


Thaddeus Radell wrote in his review of the 2013 Kyle Staver Tibor de Nagy Gallery show:

…“Staver is a brilliant inventor whose success lies in her commitment to her inner vision that is at once original and sophisticated and she is remarkably adept at rendering that vision into cohesive luminous constructs. From a broad, almost confused spectrum of diverse shapes and shielded color, she synthesizes clarity. And so she transforms the modest room allotted her into a theater of sorts, where the viewer can expand their own imagination by feeding into her ever-ebullient, seriously odd vision.”

I was fortunate to meet Kyle Staver recently and interview her at her home and studio in Brooklyn, NY. I’ve long been enchanted by her paintings and was excited to finally be able to see her work in person. I would like to again thank Kyle for taking the time to speak with me at length about her work and concerns as an artist.

I told her how much I marveled over her incredible compositions but it wasn’t just the formal beauty I responded to; it’s also the humanistic dimensions–I feel empathy with her characters and storytelling, that this was a refreshing reprieve from the grimmer examples of postmodernist nihilism and irony. She responded that it was critical that her paintings:

“communicate what it’s like to be a human being for Kyle Staver” and that “The humane part of painting for me, It’s just that I’m not a jerk.” She then went on to say that “It’s so much easier to say I hate you than it is to say I love you, there is nothing risked in saying fuck you, nothing; but everything is risked if you say I love you and mean it.” When I paint, I’m always trying to not pitch, if I have two figures close together and it’s romantic I want to hold it and give it teeth. I’m not against irony, I’m against a kind of ironic delivery system that only delivers the fuck you. If I made romantic paintings without the pull in the other direction, and I think that’s why a a painting needs irony, to keep the painting taut. I don’t want to be a sentimental painter or have the paintings be flabby. I think that the irony is the pull in the opposite direction.”

Kyle also discussed how important the community or tribe of artists has been for her growth as a painter. Kyle gives back to this tribe not just with her influential paintings, teaching and personal support to her many artist friends; but also with her Facebook postings, which for many painters around the world, has become an important new way to start their day, reflecting on the vast power and interconnectedness of art.


Groupers, 2013 Oil on canvas 70 x 57 1/2 inches

LG: What has been some of the most significant influences for you as an artist?

KS: Whether you’re writing, making music or going to a bar to talk to people, it’s all about connecting. I happen to find myself a visual thinker and maker. At a certain point in my life, a woman at a boarding school named Mrs. Moses told me she knew what was wrong with me and what was wrong with me was that I was an artist. She said that it was ok, that there was a whole tribe of artists and not only was there a whole tribe but there was a whole culture. Meaning I wasn’t the only person that did this.

If Mrs. Moses hadn’t told me that I was an artist I probably would’ve stayed in northern Minnesota making knit sweaters and macramé. I would have made things. Minnesota artists make marvelous things, I’m not dismissing that. It’s just that I had the good fortune of finding out that I needed to make things.

I had the great good fortune to have someone direct me to this great culture of visual making and communicating where I met my tribe. Natalie Charkow, who helped me apply to Yale – as she was going through my slides said “you know the one thing you need is you need more culture”, and that was exactly right. I knew nothing except I had to make.

LG: By culture she meant?

KS: That I didn’t know enough beyond a certain group of painters that I liked. I thought the sun rose and fell on Soutine. I still like him, but I don’t love him like I did, but that’s like thinking that when I moved to Brooklyn that Brooklyn was tiny but once I lived in Brooklyn it’s enormous. And so that’s all Natalie was saying to me, it’s wonderful to fall in love, to feel connection and feel like your nervous system is being understood by another artist.

Natalie Charkow Hollander, Our Oak Tree

Natalie Charkow, Our Oak Tree

LG: So you studied with Natalie Charkow Hollander? I’m curious how she may have influence your bas relief studies for your paintings.

KS: I studied with her at Yale. I took Natalie’s sculpture class and it was the best drawing class I ever had in my life. I started off as a non-figurative sculptor, came to painting late. I took Natalie’s class when I went to graduate school and she would have us do these little figure models. At the end of the day she would make us smash them telling us “no one would be making Christmas presents in her class“! You’d work on this piece and then she’d just make you trash it.

At one point we had to make a relief of a painting and of all the paintings in the world to choose from I chose a landscape by Van Gogh, a hay wagon in the middle of a yellow field. It has a massive space, a crazy thing to try and make a relief out of, I don’t know what I was thinking. This relief was extremely thick. Natalie said the best thing that could happen to you was to just drop your relief face down, flat on the ground. But after Natalie’s class I always built my paintings into very thick reliefs, I don’t know what Natalie would say about that but it helps me with some things in my paintings.

LG: When you say you build the painting you mean your clay moquettes, you make these bas relief as studies for paintings?

KS: No, I make them concurrently. I do a lot of different things when I’m working on a painting. Sometimes when I’m painting I get into a corner and I have a painting that’s like a mule that just sits down and no matter what I launch at it, it won’t move. So, if I back out of the stall, back out of the studio, make a print or work on a relief—I can usually find another way in—that the mule isn’t expecting. So everything that I do is alleys to plow back into the painting. I do build paintings, I do watercolors of them, I do a million drawings of them and it is all concurrent—it’s like the debris that the painting generates. But Natalie was the first person that I made a relief with.

Apple Trees by the Studio, 1986

Gretna Campbell, Apple Trees by the Studio, 1986

LG: I’m curious to hear about Gretna Campbell who you studied with at Yale. What was it like to study with her there?

KS: Yale was an extraordinary place, a very exciting time—William Bailey was there, Lester Johnson, Mel Bochner, Andrew Forge, and Bernard Chaet. However, this was a boy’s club. Natalie was there some but Gretna Campbell was the only full full-time woman. Every time Gretna came into the studio it was to bring you a miracle, I’ll never forget this, she walked into my studio with a Bruegal book and flipped to a page and you probably know the painting there’s a figure and looks like his falling out of the painting and he is pointing at the back of him and there is a guy in a tree, do you know this Bruegel?


The Peasant and the Nest Robber 1568 Pieter Bruegel the Elder 59.3 cm x 68.3 cm Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

It was like a key in a lock that turned, and Gretna always told me that if I ever got my handle on space, I’d go to the moon. She said that where it’s happening, but I couldn’t get a handle on it. I knew I wanted it but I didn’t know how to see it, I couldn’t do it. And Bruegel was the key for me and that particular painting. I’ve never forgotten that painting. That’s how marvelous she was, she’d come into your studio and you’d be struggling, trying to keep your paint clean or something and she would give these little helpful hints like put your medium in one of those plastic squeeze soap bottles. and your like, “really?” “I’m at Yale at you’re telling me about soap bottles?” She said 20 years from now you’re not going to remember what Mr. FuddyDuddy said but you’ll have clean medium! It’s true, all of her tips about making paintings was enormously generous, humane and to the point. Like I say, she brought me miracles.


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