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The following is an article from Sculpture Magazine, October 1996 p. 61

REVIEW: "John Van Alstine: Vessels and Voyages"

at the DeCordova Museum, Boston MA, June 1996 thru June 1997

Like many 20th-century sculptors, John Van Alstine is concerned with achieving verticality, and with the leverage and flexion required to get massive forms aloft. Standing upright is no longer a given of sculpture but a strenuous and problematic undertaking. Van Alstine, follmving in the footsteps of Constantin Brancusi and David Smith, has made the elevating function of the pedestal an essential element of the sculpture itself, but he has also extended the notion into the realm of metaphor. For Van Alstine, getting off the ground is a perilous, unpredictable, and often humorous journey into the unknown. In Charon's Steel Styx Passage (1996) ascension is achieved by means of a diagonally thrusting pole balanced on a large pneumatic ball or buoy. Perched precariously atop this linear element, which slices into space with the confidence of a jet fighter, is a rowboat stand-in for the mythical vessel on which dead souls are ferried to the underworld. From this vessel, with its teetering oar, projects an abstract linear element that continues the diagonal thrust, although it does so somewhat erratically, like a firework fizzling out. The unstable contraption is anchored at the base by a massive iron cleat, used to tether boats, and a block of granite. The erratic journey from massive base to wispy curlicue takes on a picaresque narrative dimension, like one of those 19th-century novels tracing a life full of misadventure. Van Alstine's life journeys-and this piece in particular, with its overt literary references, must be read in this light-are never without their difficulties; made up of bits and pieces, found objects, and roughhewn natural elements, the narrative is full of false starts and asides.

One of the pleasures of these sculptures is the way in which they combine abstract and literal elements in ways that enrich the meanings of both. Van Alstine is constantly punning in an almost Picasso-esque manner, many parts doing double-duty: the metal cleat at the base of Charon's Steel Styx Passage both anchors the work structurally and the nautical reference broken propeller that agonal Tendencies an organic rotundity that plays of the sharp diagonal tilt of the granite block below, but it also gives a quixotic personality to this massive form and its toohopeful pursuit of loft.

These works tend to be simultaneously playful and dangerous. In Tether (Boys Toys) (1 995) the pinnacle of the work is a missile-like form that seems to be dragging its massive chain in an effort to wreak random havoc. But the work is too good-natured, too paradoxical, to threaten. The visual joke here is that while the missile form appears to be tugging on the thick iron links, it is actually propped up by them. The anchor at the base further deflates the work's aggressive intentions through exaggerated parody.

Van Alstine is interested in the erectile tissue of his pieces, their phallic thrusting into ace, but also the imminence of deflation. Like real men everywhere they aspire to conquer, but, in the event, seem as likely to droop. For Van Alstine the process of getting his sculptures up is a personal journey.

"John Van Alstine: Vessels and Voyages" is a fine inaugural exhibition for the DeCordova Museum's new Sculpture Terrace. Dramatically set above a landscape of woods leading down to a lake, the Sculpture Terrace is a wonderful addition to the DeCordova's already fine outdoor sculpture park, affording visitors the opportunity to view the work of a single artist in depth.

With their command of space and references to things aquatic, Van Alstine's sculptures seem made for this dramatic natural setting.

--Miles Unger

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