Exposition Art Blog: Stephen De Staebler

Stephen De Staebler

Stephen De Staebler (March 24, 1933 – May 13, 2011) was an internationally celebrated American sculptor, best recognized for his work in clay and bronze. Totemic and fragmented in form, De Staebler's figurative sculptures call forth the many contingencies of the human condition, such as resiliency and fragility, growth and decay, earthly boundedness and the possibility for spiritual transcendence. An important figure in the California Clay Movement, he is credited with "sustaining the figurative tradition in post-World War II decades when the relevance and even possibility of embracing the human figure seemed problematic at best.

De Staebler’s ceramic sculptures harness the inherent qualities of clay, his primary medium during the earlier years of his career, to create raw, fragmented indexes of the body, the landscape and even the landscape as body. The equally organic and preternatural qualities of his forms evoke the tenuous relationships between earthly monumentality and spiritual transcendence, fragmentation and wholeness, and fragility and strength. This tendency for slippage serves a productive purpose, allowing the works to inhabit the discursive space between more prescriptive categories. Seated Figure with Yellow Flame, in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum is a typical example of his anthropomorphic works.
Donald Kuspit observes how De Stabeler’s art can be seen as: “an attempt to strip the human figure down to its most elemental, ‘almost simplistic,’ terms, revealing it in all its archaic bodiliness. He wants to disinter it from its modernity – the sense of its purely functional significance, of its ideal existence as that of a happy machine – and recover a sense of its flesh as morbidly immediate if also cosmic in import, linked to the strange tumult of raw matter in formation.”[4] He goes on to describe how De Staebler seeks “to create a modern religious art, utilizing archaic forms for an ‘archaic’ purpose: the articulation and remediation of suffering. This generates the illusion of release from time and space we call ‘eternity.’ De Staebler’s archaic figure symbolizes the process that leads to the eternal effect – that uncovers the eternal presentness of the primitively memorable – and the effect itself. It is about the impacted sublimity of our feelings for those we cherish, most of all, for ourselves.”

In the late 1970s, De Staebler turned to bronze after an injury temporarily curtailed his ability to create large-scale, ceramic figure columns. His interest in such a classical art historical medium might strike as counterintuitive, however De Staebler adapted the casting process to reflect his more deconstructed, liberated approach to art-making.
In a 1995 interview, De Stabeler explained how “working with the figure on its sculptural ground is like the figure/ground problem in painting, the relationship of the figure or object to the space around it […] when I shifted from clay to bronze, I learned quickly that the reason I needed bronze was to separate the figure even further from the ground and let it stand on its own form, which isn’t possible in clay. Bronze offers this great freedom to cantilever masses.”Rather than being restricted to making bottom-heavy figures, as was often required by clay, bronze allowed De Staebler to create more gravity-defying sculptures that, with their gracefully attenuated legs, appear to exist on the cusp of collapse. While wing-like shapes were not novel to De Staebler’s art, this new material precipitated a greater, more involved investigation of wings and their various symbolic manifestations within the realms of mythology, religion, the animal kingdom and nature. Notable winged figures include Winged Woman Walking (1987); Winged Victory at the Moores Opera House in the University of Houston; and Three Figures, City Center, Oakland, amongst others.Wikipedia

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