Robert Stackhouse is the artist who builds large wooden A-frame constructions. A relatively small number of people have actually seen a Stackhouse sculpture because they are up for a short time, often on college campuses, and then dismantled. We know this work through photographs -- and the artist's drawings, watercolors and prints.
"Drawing is an integral part of my work," Stackhouse has written. "Source drawings, plans for sculptural projects and documentations of finished installations fill the majority of my studio time. Because I originally studied painting, I conceive of my sculptures two dimensionally rather than in three dimensions. I see them as pictures, not volumetric structures."
Retrospective in a box
Works on paper dominated "Robert Stackhouse," a retrospective exhibition of work done since 1969 that was held at the University of Arizona Museum of Art, Tucson, Jan. 28-Mar. 25, 2001. This 51-piece show featured 44 drawings, watercolors and prints; one large sculpture and two smaller ones; two models fabricated by an assistant; and two works that combine two-and three-dimensional elements.
The Belger Family Foundation acquired almost all of this art directly from Stackhouse. The foundation collects a lucky few artists in depth, stores the work at its headquarters in Kansas City, Mo., and welcomes visiting curators and scholars. Peter Briggs, curator of the University of Arizona Museum, selected the Stackhouse retrospective from among 160 pieces in the Belger collection. The foundation also collects William Christenberry, William Wiley and the graphics of Jasper Johns.
Stackhouse calls his work "a self-portrait" and says that the source of his imagery is "change as in growth, life and death, journeys, knowledge, and transformation.
"The sources I draw are ships and serpents and shadows," he adds. "These source images can appear at any time on my project plans or documentation drawings.… My drawing chronicles my method. Making my sculpture is an experience; drawing is my skill."
The esthetics of drawing and sculpture are "very different," he adds. "In two dimensions, I'm king of the cosmos and can do anything I please. In three dimensions, I must follow the rules or the piece falls apart." He calls his work "a kind of dialogue" between the sculptures and the drawings.
Stackhouse never shows his heart in his work. His visual vocabulary and approach to making art have remained remarkably consistent since his professional career began in 1969. Change is evolutionary, never abrupt. Stackhouse believes that an artist can work fruitfully with just a few forms. "Whenever I get stuck," he says, "I draw snakes to get myself started again."
The artist makes drawings that are huge (up to 12 feet tall), poster-like and theatrical, with the imagery centered in a frame and dramatically lit. He draws the frame in pencil and writes the title of the drawing and his name in big letters across the bottom. "Theater had a huge impact on me at an early age," he explains. "I was a stage hand type in college. I designed and built sets, acquiring skills I would later use to fabricate sculpture."
Expressive and functional
Stackhouse drawings can be termed expressive and functional. Those we call expressive advance his art. He makes them primarily for himself, often in uncommercial sizes, and he can be ambivalent about selling them.
Functional works -- smaller drawings, watercolors and prints -- he sells to make his living. Also included in this category are documentary drawings and work-related notebooks. The artist's expressive drawings are much the most important part of his work.
Drawing lets Stackhouse "revisit" his sculptures after they are demolished, which releases a "powerful regenerative energy" that leads to new work. In 1973, for example, he built Sleeping King Ascending, his first site-specific sculpture. He made this 20-foot-high, 6-inch-deep pyramid-shaped construction from about 2,000 wooden laths.
"When I built Sleeping King Ascending, I was exclusively a sculptor," Stackhouse recalls. "I had to put energy into a major installation and then destroy it. How was I to go on? I made drawings."
The first drawings of Sleeping King Ascending were documentary, but two years after this work came down, the artist pinned a three by five foot sheet of paper to his studio wall, projected a slide of Sleeping King Ascending onto it, and started to draw.
"Drawing laths is very laborious," he says. "It took me a week just to complete that drawing in charcoal and longer still to add the watercolor. I was bored and my mind would wander, which led me to new things." He had stumbled upon a method that he would soon employ to create Ghost Dance, his next site-specific sculpture.
Getting to Ghost Dance
Three drawings from 1974 -- Drawing for Ghost Dance #1, Drawing for Ghost Dance #2 and Drawing for Ghost Dance #3 -- show step-by-step how Stackhouse used drawing to release his creative subconscious and find a form for Ghost Dance.
He had promised the Henri Gallery in Washington, D.C., that he would "automatically design a sculpture and show" in just two months. Fearing failure and not sure how to proceed, he started Drawing for Ghost Dance #1 by copying a photograph of his features. He thought this activity might occupy his conscious mind so it would begin to wander as it had when he made the Sleeping King Ascending drawing.
When his shadow fell onto this self-portrait in progress, Stackhouse filled it in with powdered charcoal. Next, he added a shadowy image of deer antlers from his memory. The drawing was now done, but he had made no progress toward his goal.
Drawing for Ghost Dance #2 is the artist's second attempt to find a sculptural concept. "It's a memory drawing of the Henri Gallery where I was planning to show," he says. As he worked on this drawing, Stackhouse realized that it was "not releasing me," so he put in a profile of a deer's head in the style of Don Ray, an illustrator of outdoor magazines and a family friend from the artist's childhood.
"Drawing the deer's head so naturalistically was tedious," he states, "and my mind wandered as I worked. The deer's antlers and the shape of the gallery led me toward a curvilinear design for the sculpture." Drawing for Ghost Dance #3 is a halting, erasure-filled rendering of the gallery interior. In the center of the gallery floor, a curved A-frame sculpture takes shape.
None of these drawings was purely spontaneous. Stackhouse began with a portrait of himself -- the subject of his work -- and determined which imagery he would "allow into" his drawings. At this time in his life, he was reading about mythology, primitive religion, and shamanism. He drew upon these sources and thought processes to advance his work without losing control.
Sources and their uses
Stackhouse sometimes draws his sculptures to experience them after they come down. Inside "Running Animals/Reindeer Way" (1977) depicts his A-frame construction Running Animals/Reindeer Way (1976). Almost five feet tall, the drawing approaches life size. "Once I made the drawing, it became my A-Frame, replacing a piece that was destroyed," the artist says.
While the sculpture Running Animals/Reindeer Way was on exhibition, Stackhouse expected visitors to enter it and experience the enclosing interior with its complex patterns of light and shadow. He says that his sculptures must be seen "from the inside" and that entering them is like being "swallowed by the beast." There are no figures inside the sculpture as he draws it because they would exclude the viewer -- and Stackhouse -- from imaginatively stepping into it.
Some Stackhouse drawings present his sources next to the sculptures they inspire. "Niagara Dance" Ship and Snake (1978), for example, shows Niagara Dance (1977), a wood and rock A-frame construction built at Art Park near Buffalo, NY. We see a Viking ship form floating above Niagara Dance and a snake on the ground in the lower left corner.
Two narrative drawings from a series of four produced in 1982 -- From the Deep and Inside Four Structures -- sum up the artist's work at this time in his career. In From the Deep, we see a shadowy rendering of the artist's body with deer antlers in the background, his breakthrough sculpture Great Rain Snake (1969) at the center, and several sculptures around the borders. Inside Four Structures shows a large A-Frame at the center and four smaller A-Frames set like medallions in the corners.
From the Deep and Inside Four Structures are beautifully composed, drafted and colored, but also very peculiar. Artists rarely draw their old work, particularly in summary formats like this. Why does Stackhouse want us to know so much about his sources and work history? Why not just let the work speak for itself?
By providing abundant evidence of his sources and intentions, Stackhouse leads us toward a predetermined interpretation of his art. He reveals only what he chooses to about his work (i.e., himself), even if it seems like a great deal. This strategy protects him. We never glimpse the human being behind his work.
According to Stackhouse, much of the writing on his art has focused on his sculpture building. "I think my real skill lies in painting," he says, "and I am most proud of my skills in watercolor. No one else works in watercolor like me. I think I can get more out of watercolor at times, and that I can push watercolor far beyond what most people can do with it."
Experimenting with a simple store-bought kit, the artist produced his first watercolors about 1972, taught himself how to make images of traditional delicacy, and then began to push the medium. "I was trained as an Action Painter," he says. "I put watercolor on the paper, sponge it off, create drips and multiple accidents, and scumble the surface, but the work is always under control. With watercolor, the dynamics are on the edge."
Stackhouse builds up many layers in watercolor "to trap the light." To get the intensity of the blues and reds we see in his work, he uses "the negative space, the white, and the light coming through.
"My real hero is Rothko," he continues. "Clyfford Still and the New York School influenced my sense of color. Most of the blacks in my watercolors are combinations of Prussian blue and sepia."
The artist works vertically on the wall. "I'm just too lazy to tape the piece down," he says. "I draw a frame line around the area where the image will go, set up that barrier, and love to break it."
Acknowledging that his watercolors can be extravagantly romantic, Stackhouse explains that he has "romances with the object destroyed" (i.e., his sculptures). Flexed Flyer (1995), one of his most passionate pieces, revisits East River Bones a temporary sculpture from 1987. In this gorgeous work, the wooden sculpture hurtles through the air like a spacecraft. Lit from the left, Dick's "K.C. Way" (1996) looks like a monumental stage set.
The Stackhouse retrospective included ten prints, mostly etchings from his 1988-89 "Sources and Structures" portfolio. After making lithographs with master printers, he discovered spit bite etching. "I mix spit with acid and draw direct on the plate," he explains. "It's like doing a watercolor. What you see is what you get."
Stackhouse's etchings are considerably less venturesome and rewarding than the watercolors. He uses tight perspective, no frame line, and a blank background. Soundless (1992), his best print, recalls Dick's "K.C. Way."
In 32 years, Robert Stackhouse has produced so much important work that a modest retrospective selection filled a museum to the bursting point. At a time in his career when he has earned the right to relax, this artist continues to challenge himself. He wants to start painting again, something he has not done since art school. "What really attracts me," he says, "is an unanswered question."