Forming Expressions

Posted on 25 November 2009

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From sailing single-handed across the Atlantic to serving as a Navy captain in Vietnam, local sculptor Robert Hooke is a consummate observer of life. Hooke is also an artist, and as he explains it, his many and varied experiences in nature and abroad provide the substance of his sculptures. By exposing himself to diverse species and cultures, Hooke seeks to capture emotion and expression in raw form.

“I have two passions: the outdoors and art. I always wanted to expose myself to animals and people in a multicultural sense,” explained Hooke in his new Washington Street gallery space, which occupies the second floor space above the Grenning Gallery. “One thing I have observed is that positions reflect how people feel. A different culture handles life differently in the way they behave. [But] I want to show positions that transcend cultural differences,”

This Friday, November 27, the Hooke Sculpture Gallery opens its first exhibition — “Stance” featuring Hooke’s sculptures.

“To me the definition of stance is the body position and it is assumed by instinct or purpose,” explained Hooke. “For animals, often their position is for purpose. With people it is instinctive.”

Hooke’s understanding of universal forms, gained through his travels around the world, including over 40 trips to Africa, are transposed into his bronze-cast pieces. His human figures are almost always nude with the face smoothed over. His animal subjects are reduced to their most basic features. Because the details of his sculptures are scaled back and the figure is simplified, a wealth of feeling can be contained in the position of a hand or the flair of a nostril.

For instance, “Rendez-vous” is at first glance a straightforward sculpture of a nude man and woman, who appear intimate with each other. Upon closer inspection, it seems the pair are more unsure of one another. The couple isn’t touching, though the man’s hand hovers over the woman’s elbow. Her gaze is cast downward and away from his eyes.

“The idea behind this piece is the first potentially intimate moment. There is some hesitancy. There is a shyness. He hasn’t quite touched her yet. She hasn’t quite given herself to him,” remarked Hooke as he looked at the ochre work stationed on a table. “It really is the subtle movement and the position that gives people away. It is instinctive and we can’t resist it. Something subtle can show a woman is still in love with someone, but capturing that subtlety is the biggest challenge.”

Before Hooke’s own hands begin working to mold these figures into plaster, which are then cast in bronze, he first begins with an idea of the relationship between the subjects or a situation that he wants to express. Without working from a sketch or photograph, Hooke then tweaks this idea in the plaster model until it is perfected.

The intuition that dictates the positions of his animal figures has similarly guided Hooke throughout his professional artistic career. After earning a masters degree in economics from Columbia University and serving in the Navy, Hooke woke up one morning with an unexplained desire to become a sculptor.

“I knew I had to study sculpture. I went to the School of Visual Arts and the sculpture teacher there was Herbert Kallem. He asked if I had ever made anything. I said, ‘no, not really.’ He handed me a fairly soft stone and he said, ‘You don’t need to study a life drawing. Let’s see what your artistic instincts are,’” remembered Hooke. “I made a runner in alabaster. He said I had a good feel for proportion and form. Then he basically opened up the school for me and said, ‘You can come here anytime you want.’”

After a stint at the School of Visual Arts, Hooke moved to London where he divided his time between sculpture and working with an investment business. Soon his home was spilling over with pieces and a friend suggested he display his work in an exhibit.

“I was later introduced to a gallery owner. He asked me how long it took to create a sculpture and I said, ‘three months. He said, ‘That won’t work for me. If you are going to be with my gallery you have to show every two years. If you can translate this imagery into bronze, then we can do something.’ That is when I made the decision to use plaster blocks,” said Hooke, remembering his transition from marble to metal. Hooke soon devoted much of his time to art and later purchased the gallery.

Although he denies that a background in economics has served him as a gallery owner, Hooke is certainly realistic about the art business.

“In a gallery, you basically have to realize that not everyone is going to like what you like. You have to have an open mind about art,” he explained. “And you have to make sure you have a cross section in the type of art you are showing. Even if there is a certain niche you are filling, there has to be a variety. It increases the universe of potential buyers.”

After 30 years in London, Hooke decided over the summer to return to his stomping grounds in Sag Harbor. Hooke’s family had long summered in the Northampton Shores neighborhood and he purchased a house in the residential community several years ago. So in July, Hooke closed his London gallery and moved back. At first, he hadn’t planned to open a new business. But when the opportunity came knocking, in the form of a second floor space above the Grenning Gallery, Hooke gladly accepted the invitation.

Of his foray into the local arts scene, Hooke said, “It was out of the blue, but it made a lot of sense to me.”

The Hooke Sculpture Gallery will host an opening celebration and a reception for “Stance” on Friday, November 27, from 5 to 7 p.m. at 17 Washington Street, Sag Harbor.

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