Arts Listings

Stephen De Staebler at Richmond Art Center

By Peter Selz, Special to the Planet
Thursday October 01, 2009 - 09:53:00 AM

Ever since Rodin conveyed the illusion of movement by modeling a Walking Man without head or arms in the 1870s, so many modern sculptors have adopted the partial human form that it has become endemic to modern sculpture. For at least three decades, Berkeley sculptor De Staebler has been forming sculpted, fragmented images that signify human incompleteness and yearning for wholeness. 

Like many leading Bay Area artists, De Staebler had initial exhibitions of his work at the Richmond Art Center. It was also there that he received the first of his many awards. In the 1960s, when still in his 30s, he created the sanctuary and crucifix at Newman Center here in Berkeley—one of the truly successful ecclesiastical artworks of our time. It is worth noting that this artist was a student of theology at Princeton before coming to Berkeley to study sculpture. The present show is a stunning installation of numerous standing fragmented figures.These pieces are made of clay, which is the crust of the earth itself. Clay, or terra cotta—Latin for “cooked earth”—has an ancient history in human civilization. 

De Staebler’s sculptures stand like totems of an ancient culture, defiant witnesses of endurance. They have no gender but are endowed by the sculptor with a sense of the universal human condition. All these pieces are assembled from previously fired fragments, many of them long buried by the artist over a period of some 40 years on the hillside of his studio and home in Berkeley. Proceeding like an archaeologist, De Staebler then excavated the pieces and placed them on armatures to construct new sculptures with rods, pins and glue. He never resorted to painting or glazing the clay but derived the color from pigments and oxides, applied prior to single firing. This exhibition, consisting of all these fragments of the past, can be seen as compendium of a life’s work. 

The sculptures are expertly installed, standing against light gray walls. Some of them are placed against a slow curve, which emphasizes their vertical stance. Many of his figures are shafts with long vertical forms, suggesting legs, visible torsos and, small heads. “Figure with Curved Leg,” assembled in 2009, is a six-and-a-half-foot silent statue, whose open legs create a dialogue between solid and void kept in equilibrium, which this artist has achieved by fragmentation.