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A career-spanning survey of Robert Stackhouse’s work docks at the Belger

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Robert Stackhouse's work used to remind me of a well-trained standard poodle: smart and accomplished but a little aloof and standoffish. I always found his art hard to warm up to, even when he was living in Kansas City and exhibiting sculptures in the region. This exhibition changed my mind. The works on display at the Belger Arts Center demonstrate the depth of Stackhouse's devotion to his thematic devices — chiefly snakes and boats — and unpack the magical realism that underlies his images. Here, he and his art are finally accessible.

Metaphorically, a boat may stand for a voyage or some other transition. It's a hackneyed idea by now, but Stackhouse's boat-centered works take on poetic stature when viewed together, suggesting the artist's own progress. These large-scale sculptures and monumental works on paper (which Stackhouse mounts on canvas) trace that journey while unraveling the thread of mysticism that runs throughout. And though it could have been a snakes-boats-snakes-boats tautology, it's not. Nor is the work that simple.

Stackhouse's childhood — spent in and around water, in particular at his grandparents' fishing camp in central Florida — informs his motifs. His 1972 minimalist sculpture "Eye Shape/Boat Shape From Journey Series" is bolted-together wood, darkened and burnished to look old and then mounted on pipe. Slung close to the floor, the 306-inch-long epic (which conjures Thor Heyerdahl) elegantly signifies the mythos surrounding the adventurer who captains a vessel.

"Dreamers" is an actual old rowboat mounted in a white, framelike apparatus and hung from the ceiling. According to Mo Dickens, the Belger's gallery director, Stackhouse calls the piece a drawing. That idea may strain credulity — it's a three-dimensional sculpture you can walk around — but it suggests that the 1978 piece functions as a template for all of his works centering on watercraft and spatial relationships.

In "Dragon Fight" (1987), Stackhouse combines his two central themes. The massive paper-on-canvas work (60 inches by 192 inches) depicts a coiled snake and a gorgeous blue Viking ship superimposed over each other. The two images generate an ambiguous tension balanced in the center of the paper's expanse. The snake's body and head seem subsumed by the tapering boat, yet they coexist in alliance.

The monstrous red snake in the behemoth "Ruby's Installation" (120 inches by 360 inches) dominates two drawn structures — passageways, which appear often in Stackhouse's work. Dated 1987–89, the piece refers to the sculptural installation he erected in Sao Paolo in 1987. In 1989, Stackhouse added the images to the bottom of the painting, which originally included just the monumental snake, to memorialize the 1987 Brazilian sculptures.

Boats, snakes and passageways may at first seem a limited set of images, but the inventions at the Belger show the subtle variety in Stackhouse's highly personal iconography. He has spent a career dissecting, reacting to and reinventing these forms. The works here may not fully reveal their meaning, but they humanize Stackhouse.

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