New York

Robert Stackhouse

Sculpture Now

Robert Stackhouse’s large wooden structures are things I dimly remember having dreamt about a long time ago. Curiously, Stackhouse says that he has dreamt about them too. And several other people tell me they’ve dreamt about these same objects. All of which suggests that Stackhouse is in touch with something pretty basic.

There were two big wood constructions in Sailors, Stackhouse’s recent installation and his second one-person show in New York. Built on the floor was a gently curving, 72-foot-long structure called Ship’s Deck. It was slightly concave although flat enough to walk on—an activity Stackhouse encourages—and was suggestive of the deck of a ship or the inside of its hull. But there was really no more than a suggestion: this was less a ship’s deck represented than the idea of ship abstracted.

Suspended from the ceiling above Ship’s Deck was Ship’s Hull, a 37-foot skeletal wood lath construction that did indeed look like the ribbing for a hull, even though the fact that it was flying overhead made it seem more like a ghost ship than a functional object. These pieces suggested several things to me: while lying on Ship’s Deck and looking up at Ship’s Hull, that I was underwater and was watching a boat pass above me; that the suspended boat was the spirit of the one on the ground; that the suspended boat was the ship that carries souls from this world to the next.

Much of the effectiveness of this work, however, was due to the fact that there was nothing in it that either forced these readings or precluded others. Stackhouse achieves a delicate balance between literalism and abstraction. There was just enough “ship” here to suggest the idea of passages, but not so much as to suggest only one kind of passage.

Stackhouse has used ships and the idea of passage in other sculptures too. Ship at St. Agnes, 1977, in Cleveland, Ship Hall, 1977, at the Walker Art Center, and Sailings, 1978, which will be at the Hudson River Museum in Yonkers through 1982, all dealt with ships and their real or symbolic journeys. Running Animals/Reindeer Way, 1976, had nothing to do with ships but much to do with passage, since it was a 60-foot-long corridor made of wood lath that the viewer could walk through.

On the subject of influences, Martin Friedman has written: “Stackhouse’s preoccupation with symbolic imagery derives from extensive reading in history, archaeology and anthropology. His informal research includes such areas as Nordic myths, Celtic rituals and Indian ceremonials, as well as folk crafts, sailing ships and Peruvian ground drawings.” Even so, Stackhouse said recently that the type of art he does probably comes more out of his method of working than out of any study of primitive cultures. I was glad to hear that, since, in the case of other artists, an especially intense interest in Indian burial mounds, Viking ships, and things of that sort has occasionally resulted in trivial and limited art that seems completely irrelevant to life today.

It often increases one’s appreciation of contemporary “archaeological” art to know what the artist’s sources were—perhaps because a little history may make up for what the work itself lacks. But this is not at all true of Stackhouse’s art, and knowledge of his sources seems not only unnecessary but possibly even undesirable, since it ties the work down to something specific rather than letting it have a more universal meaning.

What I find most impressive about Stackhouse’s work is a quality that doesn’t come across in either photographs or verbal descriptions. It’s a kind of magical presence, a mythical aura that suggests the roots of primitive symbols and religions. It sounds corny, but when you’re face to face with the work it isn’t. Even though primitive religions are of questionable validity at this stage of the space electronic post industrial age, the symbols Stackhouse is in touch with seem just as affecting today as they might have in Scandinavia one thousand years ago.

Jung believed that the symbols in our dreams have meanings that are not personal but rather come from a collective unconscious shared by all mankind. This may explain how Stackhouse can plumb his own dreams for symbols and come up with art that has deep meaning for all of us.

Jeffrey Keeffe