Earl Staley

Watson/de Nagy and Co.

Earl Staley’s recent exhibition consisted of paintings devoted mainly to Greek myths—the well-known Orpheus and Narcissus stories as well as the lesser-known politico-religious tale of Bellerophon—with the remaining work cast to the ambiguous winds of grotesquerie and nature. It does not seem so long ago that the use of mythological or allegorical themes struck most observers as a risky act of packing one’s art in ancient luggage too worn and heavy for modern travel. During the last decade, however, Staley has consistently put the lie to that stubbornly Modernist notion, and currently he has a good deal of company.

Most important to our understanding of the work is the way Staley addresses the Greek mythos from his contemporary vantage point, or, more accurately, his manner of retelling the already told. In the ancient world, primal myths were very quickly elaborated into cosmological allegories (e.g., Hesiod’s Theogony)—that is, transported from their origins to new fields of explanatory labor. And the modern era, of course, has seen the Jungian collectivization of myth. Staley obviously feels comfortable with such practices. Indeed, he seems to be motivated by a double fascination: first, with the persistence of myth—its very possibility—and second, with the tradition of (visual) story-telling as a passionate exercise of imagining.

Orpheus, for example, subject of a third of the paintings, is taken up quite specifically as a figure of death–the death of the artist-poet/musician, victim of the avenging maenads. Staley establishes him first, if we may impose a chronology on the series, as a young man who holds a certain sweet power over both nature and gods (Orpheus Charms the Animals, 1984). The power is that of innocence and affirmation. This lyrical charm laid on the gods of Tartarus fatefully wins the freedom of Eurydice from the fierce and lustful Hades, only to be lost at the last—when Orpheus, in an abandonment to excessive joy, prematurely turns back toward his lover, bringing about her terrible evanescence (Orpheus in the Underworld 9, 1984). The painting is both strange and effective, strange because Staley, the master of scuff and scumble, depicts this climactic scene as a kind of vaporous erasure of Eurydice, caught between light and dark forces, witnessed by an incredulous and vulnerable Orpheus; and effective because it primes us for the three major works in the series, each of which treats Orpheus’ violent end on a different scale and site.

One of these paintings shows four maenads encircling a fallen Orpheus like a sculptural grouping, which is placed in the foreground on a beach against a gentle incoming tide. Another—stark, closely cropped, and vertical—emphasizes the ferocity with which these women rend Orpheus’ body, in a black, unspecified space. A third painting sets the dark event against a variegated ground of rocky, mountainous landscape and at a considerable distance from the viewer, which seems to make more evident the ecstatic nature of ritual murder. As one might expect, Staley never “discloses” the hidden meaning of Orpheus’ death, leaving us to weigh possible interpretations on our own. The antagonistic unity that derives from the forces of Dionysian excess and Apollonian clarity is an acceptable context in which to read the myth; Nietzsche himself said as much when he claimed that the future of art depended upon these oppositional forces and likened them to "the antagonism between the sexes:’ But the viewer is obliged to deal not with the myth per se,but with the myth in the paintings, and that is far less hermeneutically resolvable. In a painting a myth is a mask. The viewer cannot discover the identity it conceals, but is left instead in a circle of speculation–unless one wishes, once again, to abandon hypónoia for pure aísthēsis, hidden meaning for esthetics.

Narcissus, 1984, takes this notion of the nonrevealing image to the edge of the pool where the embodiment of self-love was stricken by his own reflected countenance. But in Staley’s telling something goes amiss. The mirrorlike water that once allowed Narcissus to perceive another perfect self has become agitated. No unitary reflection is to be seen, only a plurality of dissolving, fragmented features. This shrewd disruption of the reciprocity of meaning suspends the Narcissus myth from its traditional conclusion.

Staley is not prone to stylistic nostalgia, an otherwise endemic urge among those claiming a place in the renovated classical landscape. Instead, he seeds his art with wit compounded of a subtle capacity for expressive caricature and occasional ostensible allusions of an unexpected kind; for example, there is an uncanny resemblance between Staley’s maenads and the spectacular queen of pop, Tina Turner. These gestures remind us not to overload our critical constructions in any one direction.

Ed Hill and Suzanne Bloom