above: detail from Clairvoyance (1936) by Rene Magritte
(above) installation view, Muskegon Museum of Art | photo credit: Art Martin
The Sculpture of Stephen De Staebler:
Elegies in Clay
through April 27 at the Muskegon Museum of Art
The work of Stephen De Staebler (1933-2011) strongly contributed to the assimilation of clay as a fine art, sculptural medium. Like his teacher, Peter Voulkos--who founded the California Clay Movement of the mid-20th century--De Staebler understood clay in terms of its expressive plasticity as well as its potential for creating form through both addition and subtraction.
However, as much as his expressively articulated, abstracted figures may be appreciated for their own beauty--and as much as their subtle details reward close viewing--De Staebler's sculptures don't so much call attention to themselves as they evoke other bodies of work and other experiences of artifacts.
For example, it is impossible not to relate De Staebler's figures to sculptural works by Nathan Oliveira and Manuel Neri. Both of these artists were associated with the San Francisco Bay Area school of painterly figuration, which flourished during the mid- through late-20th century and also included Richard Diebenkorn, Frank Lobdell and David Park. These are the historical, regional associations.
Looking beyond the geography of time and place, however, the contextual possibilities seem almost limitless. The poignant heroism of Auguste Rodin's Burghers of Calais (recently achieving new recognizance in the movie, Monuments Men) and Balzac come to mind, as well as Alberto Giacometti’s striding, attenuated figures. Installed in a narrow, dimly lighted gallery of the Muskegon Museum of Art, the 12 objects from the last five years of his career also could be experienced as sentinel forms of ancient Egyptian deities or Greek kouri. It is a solemn, even reverential, exhibition and more than a bit old-fashioned in its unabashed humanism.
(left) Leg with Broken Foot (2008), fired clay, 33x39 inches photo credit: Art Martin
(below) detail of Figure Column XXXIV (2005), fired clay, 75.5x13x17 inches
photo credit: Art Martin
If humanism is too warm and fuzzy a frame of reference, it also is possible to view these late works through the lens of surrealism. De Staebler's subdued way with color and his stark sense of form, though, are more in tune with Parisian surrealism than the comparative festivity of its colorful, Northern Californian heirs. If anything, De Staebler's formal background in religious studies contributed to his work's mirroring the surreal, anti-religious spirituality of the Beat poets.
De Staebler made numerous references to the contingent, fragmentary nature of his objects. In the earlier works on view here, chance is communicated via the seemingly random lumping together of rough wads of clay. The later works, however, are assembled from discarded shards that the artist tossed into an area behind his studio, called the "boneyard". Assuming the role of archaeologist in a dig of his own making, De Staebler retrieved and recycled these found objects, much as Andre Breton and his colleagues sought out artifacts in the Marché aux Puces de St-Ouen in Paris.
Finding value in the discarded and everyday is a hallmark of surrealism and one that imbues De Staebler's sculpture with its poetic essence.
---Janet S. Tyson | March 3, 2014