Treasures from the Vault: Robert Stackhouse

Elizabeth Goings, Exhibitions Content Manager

Robert Stackhouse is a contemporary American artist whose artwork addresses growth, life and death, journeys, knowledge, and transformation. He studied to be a painter at the University of South Florida, and went on to earn his MFA from the University of Maryland in 1969. He began to create massive A-frame sculptures soon after graduating. As Stackhouse made a name for himself as a sculptor, it’s interesting to note that not many people have seen a Stackhouse sculpture in person—they’re created to be temporary, and are only on display for short amounts of time, mostly on college campuses. However, while Stackhouse was enthralled with the sculptural process, he never forgot his roots in painting. He says that “making my sculpture is an experience; drawing is my skill.” In crafting his sculptures Stackhouse would create everything two-dimensionally first, seeing them as pictures rather than volumetric sculptures.

Over the course of his 30+ year career, Stackhouse has refined his style. He almost exclusively crafts around the forms of ships and snakes, believing that a great artist doesn’t need an abundance of new information. He’s found what works for him, and if it’s not broken, he doesn’t plan on fixing it. By 1990 Stackhouse began to make painting and printmaking his primary focus again, as his love for the two only grew during his years as a sculptor. How could it not? In conceiving his sculptures first in the two-dimensional realm, Stackhouse was always experimenting with what could be created on a surface that, while flat, can be exceptionally dynamic. His two-dimensional work is known for its monumental scale, and his pieces often leave viewers feeling haunted. Stackhouse enjoys referencing the primal myth of creation and death in his work, and he does this by portraying long-dead objects rising to a new and higher form.

This etching shows a large ship, the prow appearing to be sailing right out of the composition. Water drips off the sides, and the boat is mirrored in the water, making it confusing to the eye. Done in blues and blacks, the etching plays with the viewer perspective.
Robert Stackhouse, American, b.1942. At Eau Clair, WI. Etching and spit bite aquatint, 1989. Gift of Thomas Smith Fine Art, 1993.15. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

We see all of these attributes in Adrift, a print purchased by FWMoA from the Lawrence Lithography Workshop in 2001. A large and imposing lithograph, Adrift commands any gallery it’s in and emanates a formidable feeling of imposing power. Stackhouse creates this feeling by crafting a strong, vertical composition, which makes the ship visually loom over viewers. In an interview with RoGallery, Stackhouse describes Adrift as “[a print] on black paper, which adds to the ship’s ominous presence; water sloughs off its bow as it punches out of the gloom into the viewers space.” By utilizing a dark and monochromatic color scale, Stackhouse has created a print that is both brooding and captivating.

Stackhouse looked at studies of the RMS Queen Mary as inspiration for Adrift, which adds another layer of intrigue to its narrative. The RMS Queen Mary was named after England’s King George V’s queen consort and was launched in 1936. The ship was one of the world’s most elegant ocean liners for decades. Sailing from Southampton, England, the RMS Queen Mary completed her final trans-Atlantic voyage in 1967 and was permanently docked in Long Beach, California, where it remains a tourist attraction to this day.

We can assume that Stackhouse used the schematics for a retired ship for a reason. RMS Queen Mary, once one of the grandest ships to sail the seas, has been turned into a shadow of her former self; a restaurant, hotel, and museum have filled its hull, replacing its once dynamic engines. The ship in Adrift, while looking like a shell of a ghost ship, is also commanding and domineering. Could this be Stackhouse’s effort to revive RMS Queen Mary and bring her back to her former power and glory?

Want to read the rest of the interview we quoted from in the blog? Find it here: Robert Stackhouse!

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