Stephen De Staebler, Danae Mattes

Two Geologies: Stephen DeStaebler & Danae Mattes
February 6 — March 1, 2014

Left: Stephen De Staebler's "Standing Man with Brown Knee" (1975) Center: Danae Mattes' "Whitescape" (2009) Right: Stephen De Staebler's "Standing Figure with Segmented Knee" (1979)
Left: Stephen De Staebler's "Standing Man with Brown Knee" (1975) Center: Danae Mattes' "Whitescape" (2009) Right: Stephen De Staebler's "Standing Figure with Segmented Knee" (1979)

Dolby Chadwick Gallery is pleased to announce a two-person exhibition featuring the art of Danae Mattes (b. 1958) and Stephen De Staebler (1933-2011). As evidenced by their shared use of geologic motifs and emphasis on the organic properties of their materials—in this case, clay—both Mattes and De Staebler are deeply inspired by nature and the landscape. Engaging elements of landscape also allows both to ask questions about the human experience and to reflect on the human condition more broadly: how did we get here? Where do we go? As organic matter ourselves, what is our relationship to the rich, elemental body known as Earth? Two Geologies brings Mattes and De Staebler’s art into conversation in order to tease out these questions. While the selected works’ motivating concerns often run parallel to each other—threads that existed even prior to the artists’ marriage—they also occasionally diverge in visceral albeit complementary ways. 

For Mattes, the self in relationship to the environment has always served as a central fulcrum for her work. She maintains that the body, especially its vast network of circulatory channels and respiratory functions, mirrors the earth’s geologic and ecologic processes on a smaller scale. As such, the act of experiencing and discovering a particular landscape engages an act of self-discovery: as the landscape reveals itself, so too does the self. 

Mattes’s abstract, mixed-media wall objects are created using clay, paper, and pigment on canvas. Through years of experimentation, Mattes has developed a working process that enables her to deftly capture alluvial action, erosion, evaporation, and reformation. The viewer immediately notices how her surfaces evoke dry, cracked riverbeds: a pocket of deep cleavages, such as the one in Estuary III (2013), dramatically erupts near the center of the composition, as if a hot sun desiccated the clay at a breakneck pace. And yet, water is still evident. Imprints of dried, pigment-rich rivulets run down the face of the canvas, providing directional contrast (the fractal cracks were born horizontally, the drips, vertically) while adding a layer of geologic complexity. Finally, the hint of a horizon line automatically creates a space for the viewer to either directly or indirectly infer a human presence. By placing the self in the context of the work, Mattes hopes viewers develop unique, personal relationships to what they see—relationships that are their own despite having been prompted by her universalizing aesthetic.

Whereas Mattes’s work emphasizes the figurative relationships between the earth and the body, in many of De Staebler’s clay sculptures, the body and the earth literally become one. In Standing Man with Brown Knee (1975) a man’s body—including a discernable sternum, belly, legs, and feet—emerges out of what appears to be a cross-section of a mountain or hill. His embeddedness within the heavily striated rock underscores not just our earthly boundedness, but also our material essence: we are of the earth and we will one day return to the earth. These works complete a cycle that began with a series of landscape reliefs from the 1960s. Reminiscent of contemporary Land Art from the era, these heavy, low, horizontal sculptures evoke geologic formations and introduce latent biomorphic forms that would flourish in his later work. 

In addition to uniting body and earth through aesthetic and material choices, De Staebler’s sculptures embody mysterious matrices of nature and culture. In a monograph produced for De Staebler’s 2012 retrospective at the de Young Museum, curator Timothy Anglin Burgard captures these complexities:

“[De Staebler] stated that if he hadn’t become an artist, he might have pursued a career as an archeologist; such a sensibility persists in the surfaces of his works, which are marred by cracks and breakages that simultaneously suggest erosion and petrification. Artworks such as Standing Woman and Standing Man could be damaged or decayed sculptures excavated from a previously unknown ancient civilization, and thus provoke viewers to speculate on their own meanings and origins” (Matter + Spirit: Stephen De Staebler, 45).

This selected collection of art by Mattes and De Staebler offers powerful, open-ended explorations of the body’s connection to the earth and the earth’s connection to the body. Within the discourse generated between the works, questions of materiality prompt existential concerns, while the cultural imperatives of art ask us to consider processes of aesthetic creation. 

About the Artists

Danae Mattes was born in 1958 in Rochester, Pennsylvania. She earned her BFA from Edinboro State University in 1980 followed by her MFA from Long Beach State University in 1984. Mattes has exhibited extensively both nationally and internationally, particularly in Germany, where she has held numerous fellowships and where a number of commissioned works can be found. One of these works is an important 1994 memorial for an arson attack at Mühlenstrasse 9, Mölln. Her art has been acquired by the Crocker Art Museum, the San Jose Museum of Art, and the City of Lauenburg, Germany. 

Stephen De Staebler was born in 1933 in a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri. He earned his BA in theology from Princeton University in 1954 and his MA from the University of California, Berkeley, under Peter Voulkos in 1961. He taught at the San Francisco Art Institute during the mid-1960s and held a long tenure at San Francisco State University, from which he retired in 1990. Over the course of his career, De Staebler was the recipient of numerous awards, including two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships and a 1983 Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship. His work can be found in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Oakland Museum of California, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, among others. The de Young Museum held a highly lauded retrospective of his work, “Matter + Spirit: The Sculpture of Stephen De Staebler,” in early 2012.

Mattes and De Staebler were married in 1997.