LOS ANGELES — Of all the mythic Greek figures, Hercules is perhaps the epitome of popularized masculinity: he muscles his way through every challenge and nothing can stop him except, of course, a faithless woman (she poisons his tunic). This hero embodies many of the problematic male aspirations and anxieties that continue to plague us today, for example war-mongering dictators on the international scene and patriarchal efforts to limit women’s freedoms domestically.
So what happens when Kyle Staver, consummate painter of mythology, takes the labors of Hercules as her subject? The knock-out answer can be seen at Show of Strength, currently on exhibition at Moskowitz Bayse, her first solo adventure in Los Angeles and the first time Staver has focused an entire exhibition on a single character. The show consists of seven large paintings showing as many labors — just over half of Hercules’s total twelve. There are also clay bas-relief sculptures, a series of etchings, and tiny studies on panel where the artist explores her chosen theme (all are delightful). Finally, there are two unrelated canvases on display: one of Daniel in the Lion’s Den, and the other of Saint Sebastian, which happens to be a tour de force.
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Painting is obviously an enormous pleasure for Staver, a joy felt in every inch of her canvases (at the opening she was stroking the surface of her paintings as though they were the flanks of a beloved racehorse). Her mark-making is rough-and-tumble, her sensitivity to color and light acute. Staver’s signature move is to place most of the image in shadow while scattering highlights throughout the painting. She does this to great effect in Hercules and the Harpies (2021): the painting is almost entirely in a green half-light, but sun gleams off the harpies’ streaming shocks of golden hair, limns Hercules’s body, catches on a few plants in the central background, and illuminates some harpy tail feathers. One of the monsters sports hilariously bright red nipples, staring in open-mouthed alarm as Hercules overpowers her sisters. Staver’s color sense is noteworthy for her ability to consistently make an entire painting glow, even in the predominant shadowed portion, making broad use of pthalo greens and blues to generate hues of lower value without sacrificing vibrancy.
Her compositions are tautly dynamic, without exception. I spoke with her at the opening, and she told me that when she was a graduate student at Yale, the professor William Bailey used to tell her “Patrol your edges!” Clearly, Staver took the lesson. In “Hercules and the Hydra” (2022) the titular creature’s coils push up against all four borders of the rectangle, two crimson snake tongues converging on the hero’s pointy nose to make a pinwheel at the painting’s top center. “Hercules and the Dogs” (2021) finds Cerberus on the left side of the canvas with our tough guy on the right and one of the dog’s three heads crossing his midsection, the overlap imbuing its lolling red tongue with a lewdly phallic association. The chains with which Hercules subdues Cerberus hang from his hands all the way down the painting’s right edge ending at his foot, his pinky toe adorned with a glowing swipe of paint enlivening the bottom right corner. Each of her paintings is similarly rigorous in the deployment of forms and negative shapes, giving her images a bristling energy while generating geometric pleasures that remind me of classical Italian painters.
But what does Staver really think about Hercules? These paintings are shot through with silliness: the demigod wears the Nemean Lion’s skin, its head fastened to Hercules’s own with a jaunty blue ribbon like a Drum Major’s busby. In “Hercules and the Boar” (2022), the lion’s head seems to be chomping down upon our hero’s, the lion’s expression sheepishly aware of the goofiness. Clearly, Staver is laughing, but her laughter does not feel dismissive or mocking. Despite the horrors brought upon us by would-be strongmen like Trump or Putin, the artist displays compassion towards this archetype of hypermasculinity. In her portrayals, Hercules is working hard; we feel the seriousness of his striving. She paints his flesh in ochres (sometimes red, sometimes green), giving him a mortal earthiness rather than a heavenly glow: he is one of us. Staver’s view feels balanced as if to say: sure, the twelve labors are absurd, but isn’t all human endeavor? And let’s face it: is any struggle more nonsensical than making art? Although we are just a miniscule blip in the universe, Staver rejects nihilism — our efforts are sincere, they make our lives meaningful. This, perhaps, is a philosophical note to be found in Staver’s glowing darks, a whisper that light and hope might be everywhere, even where we think it absent.
But how much valor is truly to be found in conquest? The demigod’s skirmishes loosely recall Caroll Dunham’s wrestler paintings with their nonstop brawling, which I also saw in Los Angeles back in 2017. Hercules’s battles are epic, he is destined to win; he’s a hero, after all. Dunham’s combatants, by contrast, are locked in fighting that appears endless and pointless. Comparing the two series of works generates an illuminating link — though we like to imagine that we are Hercules, heroes awaiting our moment, in reality we are more likely Dunham’s creatures, our constant conflicts leading us only in circles.
Kyle Staver: Show of Strength continues at Moskowitz Bayse (743 North La Brea Avenue, Fairfax) through June 18. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.