New York

Stephen De Staebler

CDS Gallery

A fascination with the winged fragment has endured no doubt since the Samothracian Nike was first reclaimed. The oxymoronic aspect of an earthbound transcendentalism is appealing. Stephen De Staebler’s sculptures are the latest in a spotty filiation that includes Umberto Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, 1913, and Mary Frank’s figures. Boccioni attempted to make his Victory whole, but the very speed with which the figure propels itself shreds it. Motionblurred, its features represent also erosion through time duré. De Staebler’s work, like Frank’s, with which it has much in common, orients itself ambiguously to both past and future. Both artists view Victory in retrospect, amputated by the memory of subsequent failures.

It’s interesting that 20th-century Nikes tend to be flayed—the flaps are the wings—as if Modern consciousness cannot separate triumph from physical destruction, or as if success must always be clinically dissected and myth analytically deflated. Yet De Staebler’s figures are not cynical in this way. They are skinned, but under the wattles of flesh we see bone. The scientific coolness of rigorous anatomical studies is oddly belied by their invariable vitality; not only are the subjects blithely unaffected by their own filleting, but viscera are revealed as animating principles. De Staebler’s figures, however, display no pulsing organism, only flinty and pulverized matter. They lack muscle—not metaphorically, but actually; they have no nerves, no sinews, no tendons or organs. Pregnant Woman, 1982, is deviant in this sense. Curiously, it is the presentation closest to traditional écorché—there’s even the suggestion of a hip socket—and the cross section’s intermediate stage between skin and bone, which De Staebler usually omits, is represented by the implied presence of the fetus in the swollen womb. This is life-in-death rather than spirit-in-death, which seems to be the aim of the other bronzes. Still, even this work seems teleological when compared to a work that also uses the corroded fragment, Reuben Nakian’s The Goddess of the Golden Thighs, 1964–65, whose necrophiliac pull asserts the undying glory of sexuality. De Staebler’s sexual woman is part of a rather frustrating cycle.

It is the soul or the spirit liberated from the body that De Staebler seems to wish to convey. Wraithlike, these torsos and limbs rise, often on tiptoe, as if from the sarcophagi of De Staebler’s earlier pieces. Those effigies seemed to rest on top of their own remains; now they resurrect themselves, and in at least one work—Left-Sided Figure Pointing, 1983, with its accusatory arm—turn wrathful. They rear up weightless, rise like phoenixes. Single legs balanced on their toes suggest talaria, the winged sandals of Greek myth, but if De Staebler’s Hermes have a message it has been lost. What remains is the sense of disembodied communication, urgent but dumb. As the Nike was frozen about to step onto the prow of a ship, De Staebler’s figures are caught stretching, in the most intense moment of yearning for contact. Thus if De Staebler makes use of the romance of ruins, if he occludes his figures in rubble, it is to recreate the instant of archeological discovery, the moment when communication, appearing clearest, recedes forever. De Staebler’s figures come to symbolize, not to talk.

Jeanne Silverthorne