New York

Earl Staley

Phyllis Kind Gallery

In the New Museum’s “Bad” Painting catalogue from 1978, Marcia Tucker relates an anecdote concerning a visit that she and others made to Earl Staley’s Houston studio: “When we left the studio, one of the visitors commented that his work ‘needs editing’ in order for one to see and appreciate it.” Wandering through Staley’s recent show, I could sympathize with that anonymous visitor’s reluctance to commit. The selection of work ranged from 1977 to 1981, and while it is definitely of a body (his pointy, jaw-intensive characterizations and hyper-Latin palette are highly distinctive), the focus of attention and concern seems constantly to shift from painting to painting and within individual canvases. The tension that activates Staley’s paintings hinges on an apparent unwillingness to resolve the whole; it is as if he labors toward refinement only for the joy of subverting it.

In Staley’s Bacchanal, 1981, I think the whole succeeds because of the discontinuity of the parts. This is image-making on a tightrope. In the foreground, brazenly colored, improvisationally rendered figures are caught up in an orgy as torpid as Bellini’s The Feast of the Gods. Here action is color, and the figures are a swirl of yellow, red, and orange. Frolicking on a field of searing green in the background is a circle of Matissean Graces; to their right, a sketchy Adam and Eve wander toward the debauchees’ fiery glow. Bacchanal is so nervy—almost boorishly strident—that it’s taking off even as one is carping that it’ll never fly.

Less successful are paintings like Judgement of Paris and Rape of Europa, both 1980, which are caught uneasily between mockery of and adherence to genre. The former gets stuck in an ultraviolet Puvis de Chavannes rut, complete with an unconvincing cluster of fluffy lambkins. The subtle conventions of allegorical tableaux drag Paris and his court down like a dead weight. Rape of Europa, possibly because of its calendar-art vulgarity, held me longer. Drunkenly astride an enormous, lascivious-tongued bull, Europa looks like a party girl at the end of her experiential tether. She’s pink, he’s purple, and they’re linked by chains of pastel roses. Winging through a sickly yellow sky is a too-late Cupid. It’s amusing but it’s off—a joke without a punch line.

Staley is on firmer ground with his Story of Acteon paintings from 1977, which capture a good deal of their topic’s horrific passion. In Acteon I, a dimly perceived antlered figure spies on a veritable thicket of bathing nymphs; in Acteon II, the deer-man is being felled by a pack of monstrous hybrids. In both the colors are as ripe and and evocative as the myths they service. There is a sense of primal vision in the Acteon paintings, a sense that the myth is being served by a devotee rather than a vaudevillian.

The show’s marvel is Staley’s fabulously lurid depiction of Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife, 1980. The painting works like a pan shot moving inexorably from left to right through the chocolate boudoir. Slave girls with lutes and timbre) give way to a view of a pyramid-studded harbor glimpsed beyond a bright balcony silhouetting the lust-wracked body of Potiphar’s nameless wife, whose arm claws at Joseph as he recoils back into the darkened bedchamber with its idolatrous decor. It’s a wonderfully excited painting, some-thing like what Leon Bakst must have envisioned when Sergei Diaghilev asked him to design Nuits d’Egypte. Potiphar’s wife is seen in a pose more operatically cramped by desire than anything achieved by the inspired vamping of Joan Collins in Land of the Pharaohs or Bella Darvi in The Egyptian. It’s a nutty knockout of a painting with CinemaScope pretensions. Staley really can get there—there, in this case, being convincingly beyond the pale.

Richard Flood