by David M. Roth
No artist I can think of, past or present, fused transcendent impulses and the weight of mortality as thoroughly and convincingly as Stephen De Staebler. Operating from a deep knowledge of ancient art (Greek, Egyptian, African and Meso-American) and world religions, he created figurative sculptures whose decimated features recall bodies pulled from an archeological dig, often looking as if they were entombed in the “earth” from which they appear to have been “excavated.”
De Staebler, who died in 2011 at age 78, mastered the human form but cared little for anatomical facts. He portrayed bodies as if they’d been subjected to eons of geological weathering. The resulting distortions and dislocations, often gruesome, were typically counterbalanced with other features (wings, outstretched arms, striding legs) indicative of heavenly aspirations arising from suffering and loss, his own, primarily. Thus, it’s no surprise to learn that he wrote his senior thesis on Saint Francis of Assisi at Princeton, where the artist studied religion before taking up art.
Masks and Monumental Figures, a small but compelling exhibition organized by Rachel Gotlieb, the Crocker’s curator of ceramics, shows the range of the artist’s prodigious feats in clay and bronze. It combines the largest-ever display of De Staebler’s masks (59 including several busts), along with seven iconic bronze sculptures in the museum’s courtyard. While the latter are familiar to Northern California audiences, the masks, which have only been sporadically exhibited, are a revelation. Modelled (for the most part) after his own visage, hand-worked (mostly in clay) and shrunk to a fraction of the size of a human head, they read less as “death masks” than as snapshots of geological forces imposed on faces, no two of which are alike. Apart from the stunning range of expressions they convey, the most striking aspect is the degree to which De Staebler became a proxy for natural forces. In his hands, clay – and later bronze, beginning in the 1980s – functioned as a metaphor for desiccated flesh. Gouges, fissures, cracks, upwellings, cratered eye sockets and, in some cases, the near-obliteration of entire visages through what looks like erosion are the series’ defining features.
Coming of age in the 1950s and studying under Peter Voulkos at UC Berkeley, De Staebler found himself torn between the competing mandates of Abstract Expressionism and those of the nascent Bay Area Figurative movement. Rather than choose between them, De Staebler claimed both by incorporating landscape elements into his renderings of the human body. He happened upon that innovation accidentally, when, in a moment of frustration, he flung himself at a heap of wet clay only to discover he’d inadvertently created a landscape sculpture, something, he claimed (incorrectly) that no artist had previously done — Harold Paris and John Mason were developing similar ideas at around the same time, the early 1960s. His subsequent melding of topography with the human form became a signature, equal to the achievements of Alberto Giacometti, the artist to which he is most often compared. Both, as it happens, were operating under similar influences. For Giacometti, it was the massive loss of life caused by World War II that inspired his gaunt, starving figures; for De Staebler, the death of his mother triggered an existential crisis that would last throughout his life, bringing with it insistent memories of a family farm in Indiana whose wind-eroded riverside cliffs led to his obsession with topography. The other innovation that completed the clay-to-flesh metaphor was De Staebler’s infusion of metal oxide pigments into wet clay, which, when fired, produced accurate earth tones — a sharp contrast to the then-common practice of painting clay with patinas. With that, De Stabler evoked the full range of geological processes: sedimentary, metamorphic, igneous.
Picking highlights from a show as rich as this is difficult, but certain pieces stand out. Round Face (1967), a plate-shaped form with apparitional facial features pushed to one side, recalls the decades-old tale of Maria Rubio, the New Mexico woman who claimed to have seen Jesus on a tortilla. The visage comes into view only when seen from the far left. Straight-on, it resembles a cyclops, as do many pieces in the series where deep holes stand in for eyes, noses and mouths. An untitled mask from 1971 shows a collection of eroded facial remnants cleaved by a fissure running up the middle. Incursions of a similar sort define Lavender Face with Missing Eye (1976). Only in this, the right side of the head looks like it was sheared off and re-attached – a plausible scenario given De Staebler’s penchant for assembling figures from ceramic body parts scattered across the “boneyard” of his Oakland home. Lastly, in a bust displayed as part of an untitled trio dating to the late 1990s, we see the credible illusion of fossilized plant matter “imprinted” on the forehead – yet another example of how the artist manipulated pigment and clay to show time intersecting with human mortality.
Great as the masks are, they don’t deliver the same visceral charge as the artist’s towering bronze figures. The seven on view range from majestic to macabre. Winged Figure Ascending (2010), one of the artist’s best-known works, portrays a headless angel poised to take flight. Pregnant Woman (1982) challenges gravity, too, but more audaciously. Her seated bulk hangs in mid-air, seemingly unsupported with a severed hip and a protuberant belly resting on a spindly leg.
Such feats, common throughout De Staebler’s oeuvre, were enabled by bronze casting, which allowed the artist to build top-weighed sculptures capable of supporting loads that clay could not. Seated Man and Seated Woman Bisected (1981) — made of what looks like charred bones held together by congealed lava – constitutes a vision of hellfire as powerful as any created by human hands.
Unlike classical sculptors who saw humankind as the measure of all things, De Staebler refused to recognize any such distinctions. “Our salvation only comes by maintaining the bond between man and earth. If the bond that I express looks decimated and on the slide to destruction, so be it; that is where my fears lie. But, on the other hand, to the extent that we can maintain coexistence with the earth and not separate ourselves from it, that is the salvation of us both.”1
“We are,” he also stated, “frail, transitory creatures with aspirations of immortality, conscious of our inevitable death, and we have to deal with it somehow.” De Staebler dealt with it for half a century and emerged victorious, producing works that speak as strongly to the present as they do to posterity.
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“Stephen De Staebler: Masks and Monumental Figures” @ Crocker Art Museum through April 3, 2022.
About the author:
David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.
1. The definitive account of De Staebler’s life and art can be found in the catalog for the artist’s 2012 retrospective, Matter + Spirit at the de Young Museum. Quotes in this review come from Timothy Anglin Burgard’s catalog essay, “Humanist Sculptor in an Existentialist Age,” pp. 48 and 33, respectively.