ROBERT STACKHOUSE is a conjurer.
With mere wooden planks and laths and metal bolts he can rouse the sense of another time and place, of ancient Viking boats, of Cheops' burial ships, of shipwrecks fathoms deep.
His show at Middendorf/Lane -- his first in this city in several years -- brings us up to date on the work of a talented artist-sculptor who abandoned Washington for Soho six years ago. He still commutes to his teaching job at the Corcoran School.
His record since the move is impressive -- as is his art. Both are sketched out in several huge drawings, which serve to catalogue the many temporary outdoor site-sculptures Stackhouse has been commissioned to build since his first highly successful New York show. All have offered new and important opportunities to stretch and enrich a sculptural vocabulary, also occasionally influenced -- or so it would seem -- by the ideas of several peers, including Charles Simonds, George Trakas and Ed Mayer.
But it is Stackhouse's own distinctive amalgam that emerges here. A giant charcoal drawing with watercolor, titled "Inside 4 Temporary Passage Structures," handsomely documents -- among others -- "Niagara Dance," a public sculpture built at Artpark in upstate New York in 1978. It was the first of several participatory works that functioned by luring the viewer into a long, light-raked passageway made from a series of A-frame constructions joined by latticed wood lathing. The impact was less visual than experiential: walking through these works felt pleasurable and smelled delicious.
But these structures became "redundant," says Stackhouse, who then moved on to a new series -- still in process -- based on evocations of boat forms, some with archeological allusions. "Major Projects '72 -- '82," another large drawing, sketches out several such works, including "Sailings," executed for the Hudson River Museum in Yonkers in 1978. That piece consisted of a ship's deck-like structure upon which viewers could climb, walk precariously and observe real boats passing by on the Hudson.
From there, the boat format sprouted more purely sculptural variations: Indian canoe shapes levitated with the help of stilts; skeletal Viking ships were suspended over deck-like structures, giving the viewer a sense of a ghost ship seen from below. One such piece was exhibited among hundreds of other sculptures at the Chicago Art Fair last spring. Its powerful presence drew this viewer from half a mile away to have a closer look.
The image of the ship obviously haunted Stackhouse's imagination long before he moved to New York, a fact made clear by the beautifully finished, more traditional sculptural "objects" exhibited at Henri Gallery before his departure. "It's not that I'm crazy about boats," cautions Stackhouse, who does not sail. "I have a fascination with change and transition, and boats are a great metaphor for change."
Change brought about by the ages is clearly the underlying subject of the most eloquent piece on view--a 20-foot-long sculptural installation, designed for this space. Built from short oak planks, bolted together, the flattened form recalls the deck of a sunken ship, strewn with bits of wooden lath. Lifted into a tilt by a ceiling wire attached to one end, the piece presents a hovering surface, partially afloat, gracefully bowed by its own weight. The roughly painted sea foam green surface adds to the sense that we are in the presence of something dredged from the sea.
A large drawing hanging nearby reveals the source of this work: the recent discovery, in Lake Garda, Italy, of a 15th-century ship built in Venice and hauled over the Alps to the lake: thus the title -- "Mountain Climber."
This is, in fact, a more specific reference than we usually get from Stackhouse, though it works with or without the explanation -- the ultimate test. It is, in the end, Stackhouse's ability to rouse the past without specific reference -- to hover between abstraction and specific allusion -- that gives his work its richness.
This welcome show continues at Middendorf/Lane, 2009 Columbia Rd. NW, through Dec. 4. Hours are Tuesdays through Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.