Published Jan. 27, 2008|Updated Feb. 1, 2008

Robert Stackhouse is one of the most distinguishedand successful contemporary artists living in the Tampa Bay area. Yet few residents have had much chance to see his work. It's an unfortunate truth that although we tout ourselves as a vibrant arts community, people here don't spend big bucks on original art. That Stackhouse (along with another famous local, James Rosenquist) doesn't have ongoing gallery representation in these parts, except for a few works at Graphicstudio at USF, is telling. So major exhibitions of Stackhouse's work, old and new, in Tampa at the University of South Florida Contemporary Art Museum and in St. Petersburg at the Arts Center are long overdue. They provide proof for those unfamiliar with his work of why he is so highly regarded nationally and internationally. (For a really thorough tutorial, venture farther afield to the Polk Museum in Lakeland to see a retrospective based on a 1999 show organized by the Morris Museum in Georgia.)

Pairings dominate the work, sometimes as dualities that create tension, sometimes as partnerships that create harmony.

Snakes and boats. They have been the primary vessels and metaphors for Stackhouse's art. They embedded themselves early in his imagination, first during childhood vacations spent at a lakeside family retreat in New York, then at a fish camp in Central Florida during his teens when he moved south to live with his grandparents. They incubated during his years as an art student - he was in the first class at USF, graduating in 1965 - and began to emerge when he was teaching at the Corcoran Gallery School of Art in Washington, D.C., after getting his MFA at the University of Maryland in 1967.

Painting and sculpture. Stackhouse has, from his earliest professional days, moved fluidly between the mediums, the former never subservient to the latter as is often the case. Perhaps that's because he was trained as a painter and has always considered himself one even though he gained fame through sculpture.

Contemporary Art Museum

"Editions Archive" at USF is a group of two-dimensional works (with two exceptions). The collection, mostly multiple originals or limited edition prints created in concert with his sculptures, provides interpretations of his three-dimensional art and its inspiration. And documents it, too, since most are long-gone temporary installations.

Running Animals/Reindeer Way and Niagara Dance, lithographs, have neither ships nor snakes though they contain intimations of both. They are prints of those early, dismantled sculptures that brought so much acclaim in the 1970s. It was back then that Stackhouse began serious woodworking, using laths, a mundane, rough and unforgiving material. He stacked them horizontally onto angled arches to create enclosures suggesting paths with no definitive end, with a sense of motion coming from shadows generated by shifting light or people walking through. They emulated the enduring rhythms of nature; Running Animals referenced migratory patterns of animals, Niagara the undulations of the countryside near the falls where it was sited as a public art project. Both suggest, too, an upended boat hull, and, more obscurely (and probably only if you read background on Stackhouse), a snakeskin after being shed. More than those literal interpretations, they convey, even in small photographs, a grand mystery.

The ships and snakes are figurative in other works, sometimes juxtaposed with each other as in Small Snake and Wooden A-frame Structure, a study for his monumental Indigo Way painting (at the Polk Museum). We see the kinship between a natural creature and a man-made structure in the recurring, rhythmic patterns of scales and wood strips. One is inanimate and nonthreatening, streaming light; the other, made proportionately larger, is darkly alive.

In the late 1980s, Stackhouse codified his vocabulary in Sources and Structures, six etchings of recurring forms he would use in the coming decade in increasingly mythic interpretations: the wooden boat hull, more organic and less mechanical, and the snake, a coil as simple circle or labyrinth. Their unification is most clearly seen in Incomplete Angel, an intaglio print based on a 1998 installation in which the hull wings out, resembling both its namesake and the hooded spread of a cobra.

The Arts Center

"Waves of Meaning" at the Arts Center acts as a microcosm of the CAM show, a summation of Stackhouse's dual themes and mediums. All works are recent, from late 2007 or this month, and all are co-created with his wife and artistic partner of about seven years, Carol Mickett. The influence of a second voice is immediate. The exhibition's centerpiece is In the Blue, a massive installation that wends through four galleries. The A-frame anchors it from room to room. Cedar strips mutate the frame in each space, hung vertically from wire like wind chimes in one gallery, stuffed in a hodgepodge in another, absent in a third and symmetrically arranged in horizontal planes in the fourth. Water-based blue paint on the wood and soft light from blue gels wash the installation in gently shifting aquamarine as visitors walk under the arches curved to form a circle. The handout explains what we're supposed to experience: passage through the Gulf of Mexico and its changing currents. That's one of the fine things about Stackhouse conceptually. He's accessible and inclusive. You grasp his point quickly on an intellectual level. Yet In the Blue, like all good art, changes itself and us in our comprehension of it.

I cannot say that all the two-dimensional art is as fully realized. Maybe that's part of the experimentation implicit in a new collaboration after decades of solo work. Maybe Stackhouse and Mickett are taking a subtle detour that's nascent and undeveloped. Whatever, I'm not crazy about the watercolor T/Here. Its idea is interesting - the Gulf of Mexico and surrounding land areas superimposed with all the ocean currents in the world. The size is huge, 10 feet by 16 feet, which would be appropriate in scale for the subject matter. Yet its size mainly accentuates its technical flaws. It looks slapdash and amateurish. The marine blue of the water is too strident and overpowering for the untouched white areas of land. And the currents, which should have been painted as eloquent ribbons, are uneven, distracting slashes that look like weak imitations of a Brice Marsden painting.

Currency, another massive watercolor with acrylic and ink, is much better, more nuanced. Spirals (those snakes, stylized) dominate the surface, which is divided into grids dotted with specific locations around the gulf (Havana, Key West, St. Petersburg, New Orleans and Mexican cities Vera Cruz, Tampico and Cancun). Like In the Blue and T/Here, it's a map. Its point of view, its protagonist, is water, the vast body covering most of the Earth that flows into and out of the Gulf of Mexico constantly. Changing itself and us. Like art.

Contact Lennie Bennett at or (727) 893-6293.

Stackhouse on display

"Robert Stackhouse: Editions Archive" is at the University of South Florida Contemporary Art Museum, 4202 E Fowler Ave., Tampa, through Feb. 23. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday. Free. (813) 974-4133;

"Waves of Meaning: Robert Stackhouse and Carol Mickett" is at the Arts Center, 719 Central Ave., St. Petersburg, through Feb. 23. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Free. (727) 822-7872;

"Robert Stackhouse: Swimmers and Floaters" is at the Polk Museum of Art, 800 E Palmetto St., Lakeland, through March 2. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday. $5 adults, $4 seniors, children and students free. (863) 688-7743;

On the Web

For more Stackhouse images from the Arts Center, go to