While the spoken word is considered humankind’s most sophisticated form of communication, in many respects it pales in significance when compared to body language and posture as elemental mirrors reflecting reality’s true narrative. Carrying nuances that transcend the subtleties of dialects or idioms as well as ripping away the masks we wear to disguise our perceptions or prejudices, stance and pose, as the performance artist Terry Galloway noted, illuminates the ”duplicity that language is capable of and the many expressions the body cannot hide”.
For the sculptor Robert Hooke, this emphasis on body language completely defines his focus of aesthetic priorities, whether it is in the his studies of animals drawn from the natural world or the interactive melodramas that echo through his use of the human form. Underscoring the concept that communication depends less on syntax than on sentiment or that stated expression is secondary to emotional sensation, Hooke elicits secrets from his silent figures by understating the obvious and emphasizing the inferred.
This relies on a number of factors ranging from an elemental understanding of Henry Moore’s reference to “the form and shape of things”, (what Emerson called the “anatomy of form”), to the recognition that an integral part of any sculpture, as Gertrude Stein observed, consisted of “some supports and pretty air”. Underlying and emphasizing these singularly uncomplicated principles, however, is Hooke’s ability to understand that simplicity of the image itself is the most vital component in allowing the viewers to develop their own silent communicative avenues between themselves and the sculptural object, (an effect accentuated by the lack of facial characteristics in any of the works).
This measure of simplicity is not, however, achieved simply through the indiscriminate and random expulsion of detail as if, in sculpting an angel, the process entailed merely chipping away everything that doesn’t look angelic. Instead, through a practiced and intuitive sense of detached observation, the artist is able to understand the emotional structure of the object and therebyrecreate not the actual reality of an image of something, but instead strive to emotively conjure the personal of the entity itself.
As a result, inevitable comparisons become apparent to these works and primitive art from Africa and elsewhere as viewers find themselves responding not simply on a visual level but also through the facility of imagination, emotion, and even some measure of mysticism, all aspects synonymous with primitive art. Further, Hooke’s works are exemplified by a latent sense of formalism, a markedly subtle degree of pictorial sophistication, and an insistent exploration of emotional and psychological elements such as had existed as centuries old traditions of abstraction in African art long before its emergence in the west.
A significant difference, however, is that Hooke directs his focus more at figures and atmospheric moments representing universally common emotional sensations, rather than using his figures to necessarily identify with some transcendent being or concept.
Whether reflected in the gentle camaraderie of “An Evening Walk” (onyx), the wistfully meditative “Daydreamer” (bronze) or the rhythmically seductive “Flamenco Dancers” (bronze), Hooke draws inspiration from disparate elements of daily life while still imbuing the pose and posture of his subjects with an elegantly ethereal impassiveness.
This is also apparent in his works featuring animals from the natural world whose recreation is dependent not on aspects of scientific illustration nor the majestic idealizations of the nineteenth century “Animalier” artists. Instead in works such as “Leopard Head” (sandstone), “Monkeys” (bronze) or “Sleeping Swan” (alabaster), Hooke simplifies the forms so that planar dimensions are subtly softened and the materials themselves seem to yield the sense of existentiality, allowing the work to straddle the often intractable line in sculpture separating realism from abstraction.
Striving to balance modern impulses with traditional sensibilities and accentuating lines that are elegant in their unadorned minimalism, Robert Hooke is able to evoke profoundly memorable moments and emotions that are, by turns, both unique and universal. He arrives at this with a recognition that image, form and narrative are intrinsically intertwined and that their complexities are best understood when stripped of all needless embellishments and adornments. In effect, searching for their emotive and spiritual essence by subtracting the superfluous and spurious, thereby reflecting Hans Hoffman’s observation that one must “eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak”.
Eric Ernst is an artist and curator who lives in Sag Harbor, NY.