Temporary Wooden Art That Makes a Lasting Impression

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FROM one side, the giant wooden structure looked like a simple plane of wooden slats painted blue. But after walking around Robert Stackhouse's "Bluedeep Denver" at the University of Denver's Schwayder Art Gallery, it became something else - the hull of a ship turned upside down, perhaps, or a mysterious building. And walking into the A-frame of the huge sculpture changed the experience dramatically. Exterior light filtered through the slats, changing the entire interior. There was something indefinably primeval (and secretly sophisticated) about the way the light played through the slats and changed the space around the viewer.

"Bluedeep Denver" was 9 feet high, 6 feet wide (at its widest point), and 48 feet long. It is now gone. Part of its beauty lay in the fact that it was a temporary structure that now lives on in the imagination of the viewer. It's like experiencing an important historical moment, and then having the opportunity to think about it later.

Stackhouse is a New York artist, but he managed during a short stay in Denver to create a structure specific to place. "Bluedeep Denver" taps into the viewer's own sense of culture, heritage, and place to complete the work. Participatory sculpture.

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He was attracted to wood because it seemed to have a mind of its own, he says. "It does strange things. It curves and it warps even after you construct [the piece]. I was attracted to material that changed. Wood altered itself even after the original construction."

Stackhouse began his career as a painter, but went into sculpture in the late 1960s. It was the age of Minimalism, a period when many artists were involved in creating radically simplified forms as sculpture. He tried to make a Minimalist piece, but the 40-foot wood branch he was working on resisted the harsh geometry of Minimalism. And so he began to look at the wooden form differently.

He visited a zoo in Washington, D.C., and found himself attracted to the snakes. The "minimalist" form he was working on became a "Great Rain Snake." The snake, he realized, was a transformative symbol. And over the years, the serpent and another symbol, the ship, became a great part of the language of his art.

"Bluedeep Denver," like so many of his other works, was meant to provide a transforming experience. The lines are sinuous and subtle - you cannot take them in all at once.

The color of the sculpture is as important as its form. You can't help but feel the vivid implications of the color - in this case, marine blue.

Stackhouse says the meaning of the piece lies inside it, in the transforming experience of walking through it and participating in it.

"What I hope will happen is that viewers will gain a sense of their own culture, a sense of personal history. A signal of success to me is when someone visits one of my structures that they come out not asking me what I intended, but informing me what I did," he says.

He tries for "a sense of place, of being, of connection - to self and other. I'm interested in turning these structures into experiences that are multileveled. I'm trying to find loaded images - for different people [these images] mean different things. I've had people walk into one of my structures and ask, `Have you ever been to Norway, or Algeria, or Panama, or Detroit?' And the answer is `No, I haven't.' I deal with very personal imagery from my [Scots-Irish] heritage, my culturally specific life, an d I try to build on that."

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