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Stephen De Staebler
at Dolby Chadwick Gallery, San Francisco, California
Recommendation by Dewitt Cheng

Stephen De Staebler, "Winged Woman Ascending," 2011, bronze, 108 x 32 x 33"

Continuing through January 28, 2012

Berkeley sculptor Stephen De Staebler died last year, but his work seems to be everywhere lately, with a substantial show mounted recently at the Richmond Art Center, a de Young Museum retrospective (which I have not yet visited, hence the current review of the gallery show only), and the current show at this gallery. Despite De Staebler’s underlying existential humanism, a worldview not much in vogue for forty years, the work looks fresher and more relevant than ever — stoic, heroic and tragic. Perhaps we’re ready to consider adding those virtues to the desiderata already inculcated in the art world, e.g., critical savvy and strategic thinking.

The show features ten of De Staebler’s familiar human figures, slim and elegantly proportioned effigies seemingly composed of earth. Segmented and incomplete, they are seemingly ravaged by time, but remain standing, still (despite their facelessness and even headlessness) sentient. Assembled from ceramic fragments that De Staebler had made during his long career (before his confinement to a wheelchair), and cast in bronze, naturally, with the help of assistants, they are impossible not to interpret as proof of the artist’s unflagging creativity and aesthetic resolve. They function as metaphors for human pertinacity and perseverance, too, if I may be so bold. Works like "Winged Figure Ascending," "Figure with Stunted Wing," "Figure with Eroded Hip," and "Man with Broad Chest" are inspiring, but without the core of falsity usually associated with self-conscious efforts at moral/spiritual uplift.

Viewers who have tuned out to art-world absurdism should not miss the opportunity of engaging with De Staebler’s mature vision. If I were one of those writers prone to compiling ten-best lists every December, I could safely, even now in January, declare this one of 2012’s keeper shows; combined with the de Young Museum’s concurrent retrospective, it looks unbeatable.

Dolby Chadwick Gallery

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