Focus: Robert Stackhouse: The Ritual of Labor

Robert Stackhouse was trained as a painter during the heyday of Abstract Expressionism. Although his time as an Abstract Expressionist painter lasted only a few years, he has retained that movement’s faith in the emotive and communicative power of the image. He continues to base his sculptural practice on the experimental and intuitive values of that movement. At the same time, he is an unabashed formalist and Constructivist-entirely reliant on the elegance and formal logic of geometric abstraction. Stackhouse describes his sculpture as a projection of a painter’s notion of space; his work is a consequence of twisting a two-dimensional plane into three dimensions.

Chicago Structure, 1997. Painted cedar, 8 x 11 x 38 ft. Klein Art Works, Chicago.

All his projects are site-specific, task-oriented, and geared to a quantitative process. He produces his work via an anti-mechanistic concept of labor that is an extension of pre-industrial building practices-a return to the handmade. Stackhouse has an ongoing romance with surfaces and the work necessary to produce them: the infinite, tiny adjustments needed to guide the eye over them, to control the way light plays across them, to create the visual rhythm established by deliberate intervals of placement. Every object he makes is a consequence of spacing or massing pieces of wood of equal dimensions but of varying lengths: hundreds of one-by-twos framed by dozens of two-by-fours. Like all the ancient art forms (forging, weaving, dance) visual iteration creates a binding process involving maker, viewer, and object/performance. Stackhouse compares the replication in his construction techniques to the shaman’s use of repetition. During the shaman’s ritual, stylized and repeated gesture, reliance on primal form, and obsessive concentration on a specific process combine to create a profound and intense experience of space and time. Because his construction process is so obvious, Stackhouse is able to create an object in which the process of its creation is inseparable from its perception. This is an extraordinary accomplishment; the rule for most art objects is that the process required for their making is not present for the viewer and generally not of visual importance.

K.C. Way, 1997. Painted cedar, 17 x 16 x 30 ft.

With Stackhouse, the ritual of the labor is concomitant with the meaning and form of the end result. The form oscillates between its own materiality and the viewer’s memory. Stackhouse’s objects gain identity through a collaboration between the viewer and the object; they often remind the beholder of a boat, yet in no way actually resemble a boat. The work, like the response to it, is always inferential, never literal. Stackhouse manipulates identification through his use of titles but never through deliberate duplication. This is a subtle way of creating emotional investment in the object yet not locking in an identity for that object.

The way in which Stackhouse deals with the aspect of site-specificity is part of his handmade aesthetic. The installation of the 1997 piece K.C.Way, at Kansas City Art Institute in Kansas City, Missouri, is typical of the Stackhouse approach. The site was dealt with as a given, as a pre-existing condition; it was not bulldozed, leveled or modified in any way. The undulations of the ground were integral to the building process. The construction was dealt with intuitively; no transits or other surveying equipment for perfect leveling were used.

Stackhouse’s building methods are totally integrated with his intuitive approach. Ultimately, scale is dependent on the landscape and its surroundings, but limited by the necessary parameters of hand-building: the flimsiness of the material, the height of ladders, the length of the human arm, and the proximate results of “eyeballing.”

In all of Stackhouse’s pieces, he uses power hand tools and a limited number of assistants, depending on the scale, but in every other way he forswears ambitious industrial construction technique in favor of human parameters. The end results are physically modest and always in human proportion. The accessibility of the object creates an intimate encounter all the more powerful because of the modesty of its scale. This intimacy is enforced by the fact that all of his objects are made to be experienced kinesthetically. The viewer moves through them, under them, and over them-causing an inescapable comparison between the human body and the object itself.

Blue Ryders, 1997. Wood, metal, and acrylic paint, 7.25 x 14 x 19.75 ft. Klein Art Works, Chicago.

At his solo exhibition at Klein Art Works in Chicago this past November, Stackhouse installed one of his now rare indoor pieces, Blue Ryders (1997). Using the cheapest one-by-two wood strapping stock available (he wanted the inevitable warping), Stackhouse began by suspending two separate, six-by-twenty-foot parallelogram-shaped panels from the ceiling beams. Each parallelogram was constructed so as to accommodate the 50 or so stacked horizontal members per panel, not unlike the side panels of a wooden boat.

As each piece of wood was added, Stackhouse adjusted the suspension ropes to change the orientation of the panels. These changes torqued the planes out of their original 90- and 180-degree orientation to floor and walls, warping the two-dimensional shape into three dimensions and creating a hyperbolic plane.

The building process lasted four 16-hour days and culminated with Stackhouse painting the unprimed wood Dutch-Boy Blue. The final effect was both anthropomorphic and mechanical. There is a distinct relationship to skeletal structure as well as to the elegance of Norse longboats. This extraordinary object was hung in front of a wall of windows over a highly polished black floor, creating a multiple set of reflections which constantly shifted the viewer’s perception. The choice of color-so shocking, deliberate, and unnatural-made any association with the object inherently unstable; nothing exists in nature that bears such an intense and unearthly coloration.

Stackhouse is part of an increasingly rare group of sculptors able to directly access meaning and experience via the sculptural craft. Like an urban shaman, he is aware of how much cultural knowledge he shares with the viewer and also knows that end results are dependent on the willing collaboration of all involved parties. The level of abstraction in his work has known coordinates in shared experience.

Missouri Shift, 1997. Painted cedar, 96 x 16 x 17 ft.

Most crucially, Stackhouse makes the primacy of seeing, making, and acting paramount in his work; it is these experiences that anchor and define Stackhouse’s work. His austere, monochromatic, strangely sensual sculpture is eloquent and evocative-something halfway between thought and realization, a three-dimensional embodiment of perception.

Kathleen Whitney is a sculptor and writer in Albuquerque, New Mexico.