Alstine: Vessels and Voyages
by Nick Capasso, Associate Curator, DeCordova Museum
During the last decade John Van Alstine has created an ambitious
body of remarkably interrelated outdoor and indoor sculptures, site-specific
installations, public art projects, and drawings. His prolific and
consistently engaging output, ranging in size from the small and
delicate to the vast and monumental, has earned the artist a reputation
as one of America's most important sculptors of the late twentieth
century. This exhibition of recent sculptures and drawings exemplifies
the ma'or visual, emotional, and intellectual threads which run
through Van Alstine's art, with a thematic focus on the crucial
notions of vessel and voyage.
Van Alstine's work in all media relies on mutually reinforcing
strategies of cohesive juxtaposition - of materials, formal issues,
association, and content. A balanced yet dynamic tension between
integrity and disintegration unites his widely disparate objects
and images. Through carefully calculated compositions, based on
natural laws and the suggestive properties of materials, Van Alstine
creates sculptures which, while rock-solid, strain with potential
energy. This ability to bind physical matter also serves to bind
the immaterial connotations of the work in interwoven layers of
An inventory of art-historically sanctioned sculptural materials
coexist throughout the artist's oeuvre. Van Alstine uses both stone
and bronze, the mainstays of pre-Modernist sculpture, as well as
the major innovation of twentieth-century sculpture - the found
object. The aesthetic juxtaposition of objects of human design and
fabrication has its roots in Cubist and Futurist sculpture, as well
as in Surrealist assemblage. Van Alstine's work hearkens back to
these traditions, especially through its engagement with space and
suggestions of motion, but finds a more firm lineage in his American
predecessors David Smith and Mark di Suvero. Like Smith, Van Alstine
includes in his assemblages tools of the sculptor's trade such as
compasses and anvils. Like di Suvero, he is attracted to huge cast-off
products of industry, especially marine and aeronautical parts.
Thus, through his choice of method and materials, Van Alstine extends
one of the most vital currents in the art of this century while
acknowledging a far older heritage.
The plastic qualities of Van Alstine's work engage all the formal
preoccupations of Modernist sculpture. On a purely visual level,
his sculptures address issues of mass and void, shape and texture,
volume and spatial extension, motion and stasis, and complete three-dimensional
realization. What makes his work unique, and is its primary unifying
agent, is his complex approach to the force of gravity. Many of
Van Alstine's sculptures display a profound vertical or diagonal
aspiration. Large shapes thrust upward, or seem to float away from
their literal moorings - massive stones, marine cleats, or anchors.
In other sculptures, extended shapes are arrayed along circular
paths. Almost all of the sculptures contain a physical or suggested
pivot point from which forms radiate to describe arcs, sections
of circles and spheres. In this way, the many different objects
in each sculpture seem held together not so much by the true force
of the Earth's gravity, but by an illusion of a potential centrifugal
force. The massive forms seem weightless, a condition which would
imply imminent disintegration.Yet, they are smoothly held together
by compositions which suggest, but do not actually create, orbits.
Orbital composition is the keystone which prevents Van Alstine's
sculptures, with their far-flung forms, from visually falling apart.
The idea of orbit also circumscribes, as it were, the associational
content of Van Alstine's work. An orbit implies motion, time, distance,
and space - all components of the theme of voyage. The circularity
of the orbit also suggests, for this artist, the circularity of
the voyage of life. The journeys through Van Alstine's metaphoric
stages of the life course are further elaborated through his suggestions
of vessels of two types: vessels as modes of transportation, and
vessels as containers. Moreover, his judicious assignment of titles
helps to guide interpretation and unify meaning.
In Charting the Course II, a small indoor sculpture, the splayed
arms of a compass establish an illusion of radial motion around
an anchoring stone. A small abstract form, suggesting both a boat
and a pod, is attached to the outer end of the raised arm. The size
and delicacy of this work, along with its navigational found object
and title, indicate a voyage just underway. In Tether (Boys Toys),
a large outdoor piece, a huge airplane fuel tank seems to gently
waft upward before being restrained by its tethering anchor and
chain. While buoyant and playful, Tether (Boys Toys) also involves
undercurrents of danger. The fuel tank is battered and distressed,
and looks not unlike an ascending missile (a vessel which reinforces
the orbital leitmotif of Van Alstine's work).
The element of threat is even more evident in Atlas (Highroller).
Here, a menacing black mine casing - an actual weapon that resembles
a round fused bomb - seems to revolve about its stone base. The
two pronged title, referring to both the mythic bearer of the Earth
and the indeterminacy of gambling, provides an interpretive context
of possible planetary disaster. Our world whirls about in a monumental
orrery of doom.
Van Alstine's use of mythological reference also occurs in Charon's
Steel Styx Passage, his most recent outdoor sculpture. In
this abstract evocation of the final voyage, Van Alstine interprets
death as a universal experience both frightening and exhilarating.
Charon's ferry to the Underworld swings in a wide arc above a large
buoy which suggests yet another planetary orb. The ferry,
its extended oar, and a coin (the token price of the voyage) are
held aloft by a mast which is anchored by a marine cleat and a stone.
With this complex interweaving of symbols, forms, found objects,
and title, Van Alstine merges the waters of Styx with the spiritual
ether of the cosmos. Death seems grim, but also transcendent.
In Chalice, a large section of an aeronautical part is transformed
into an upwardreaching, radiant yet scarred, Cup of Life. By attaching
this tapering conic form to its stone base at an angle just slightly
off from true vertical, Van Alstine again manages to suggest a slowly
rotating motion. His Chalice is dynamic, a moving, aspiring spiritual
vessel - not Just a static, symbolic icon.
John Van Alstine's drawings share many of the themes found in his
sculptures, and the two media exist in a complex mutual relationship.
Many of the drawings relate directly to particular sculptures or
iconographic themes. Some are fields for intuitive explorations
of certain juxtapositions which later are realized in three dimensions,
and others are made in response to finished sculptures. But in works
like Passage (Red Ball with Points), Van Alstine gives his imagination
free rein. A boat, an anvil, and a sphere with projecting forms
zoom along together over a highly charged abstract landscape. These
objects, all familiar players in Van Alstine's repertory, embark
on a voyage which is as much narrative as symbolic. Here, in two
dimensions, the artist is free to create relationships which would
be impossible in three dimensions given the physical laws which
firmly limit the possible actions and interactions of objects.
A number of writers have suggested that John Van Alstine's work
owes a debt to Minimalism. Such contextualizations are based on
the artist's use of geometric forms and his chronological position
vis-a-vis the great march of Art History. But the deployment of
cones, spheres, and circles is neither necessary nor sufficient
evidence of a Minimalist aesthetic. Moreover, Minimalism - an end-game
of Modernist formalism - involved the reduction not only of mass
and volume, but also of content. Van Alstine's work, with its juxtaposed
impure found objects, and rich layers of association, symbolism,
and narrative, could never be construed as reduced. Van Alstine
does indeed borrow from the formal innovations of Modernism, but
he extends them into a realm fraught with extra-visual meaning,
a realm of the mind and soul (and not just the eye), which is truly
contemporary, post-Minimalist, and post-Modern.
--Nick Capasso, Associate Curator, Decordova Museum
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