Van Alstine's art is precarious, yet strong as steel

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NORTH ADAMS — John Van Alstine's sculpture is often jaw-clenching. Take "Kyklos," the 51-inch tall stone and steel work currently residing at the center of the The Artist Book Foundation's Louis and Susan Meisel Gallery as part of "Synergies: The Art of John Van Alstine." At the top of the piece, a hunk of slate is somehow affixed to one of three smaller parts below, an alignment that includes, perhaps most improbably, a modest red circle. It's like seeing a Tyrannosaurus rex atop a unicycle.

"My work's really about, in many cases, getting heavy objects up in the air and creating a sense of tension," Van Alstine said during a Wednesday phone interview, "and by putting that circular element at the bottom, it just feels like it's moving or has a sense of precariousness that I like."

Van Alstine has a long history of conjuring circles and ancient Greece through his "Sisyphean Series." Near "Kyklos," "Sisyphean Circle 10-16-16" presents a tantalizingly incomplete version of the shape in a granite and steel arrangement, evoking the oh-so-closeness of Sisyphus' futile boulder-pushing. Van Alstine's commitment to testing the laws of science is as enduring as his geometric interest.

"His sculptures always imply motion in their stasis: balance — and therefore, mass, weight, and gravity — are always dynamic forces that quite literally form his three-dimensional constructions; without those physical factors actively in play, his constructions would actually fall into a mere jumble of stone slabs and steel rods," writes curator Howard N. Fox in "John Van Alstine: Sculpture 1971-2018."

Published by The Artist Book Foundation, the book documents Van Alstine's four-plus-decade career of creating abstract steel and stone sculptures, as well as drawings. The Wells, N.Y., resident is better known for his three-dimensional pieces, which can be found in the Smithsonian American Art Museum and Carnegie Museum of Art's permanent collections. But the accompanying exhibit that is on display through Jan. 25 at the foundation's gallery captures both of his artistic pursuits.

"Although they are often related to my sculpture, my drawings stand on their own as separate series and are not fixed on the idea that each individual effort is the 'be all and end all,'" Van Alstine writes in the book.

Unlike his sculptures, which can take months to complete, Van Alstine's drawings are made quickly "with a sense of directness similar to Japanese calligraphy," Van Alstine writes. He often uses finished sculptures to inspire him.

"I'll start to draw a finished work, experiment with the color, exaggerate the color, exaggerate the shapes, push it in a way that might lead me to a new sculpture," he said.

He compares his drawing process to working with clay.

"You are adding material — pastel, charcoal, even gouache and liquid media — and then I go back with an eraser and dig through these layers and sort of sculpt the drawing more than draw the drawing," he said.

In other drawings, he creates "fantasy" by depicting the tools he keeps around — anvils and spears, among others.

"Some of the drawings will start out with those with no real direction necessarily," he said.

For example, "Strange Fruit" (pastel and mixed media on paper) is both an homage to the Billie Holiday song and the products in his studio.

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"I'm a found object person. I have this reservoir of stones and crazy industrial pieces of metal, and I don't really go out with a plan to the studio," he said. "I start assembling works, laying things down on the floor, and then allowing those objects and the interaction of those objects to lead me to the final piece."

An anvil is his most apparent fixation in the drawing. Fruit rests on top of it.

"I find it particularly interesting partly because it's a beautiful object," he said. "I think it kind of has a vessel form. It's also the quintessential heavy object."

His connection to the anvil runs deeper than its physical qualities, though.

"The anvil is like an altar to me, in a symbolic way, as a sculpture that puts things together, assembles things," he said. "The idea of forging them on an anvil, forging metal and ideas together and having some sort of art spirit born from that anvil creates a sense, for me, of an altar, an art altar."

The roughly nine acres that Van Alstine shares with his wife, sculptor Caroline Ramersdorfer, is a bit of a shrine to the art form, serving as both a studio and a sculpture park.

"We have people coming all the time," he said.

He bought the southern Adirondacks property in 1987, he said, and has been working on it "ever since." The Sacandaga River cuts through the land.

"It's a beautiful place," he said.

The 67-year-old artist's work has long interacted with his Adirondack surroundings. He grew up in the region before spending some time in Wyoming. The mountains out West changed his perspective. Unlike in the East, trees and vegetation didn't hide their geology.

"Being that stone is and was a major part of my work at the time, the idea of geology and the layering and the erosion was just so evident out there, and it had a huge impact," he said. "And then when I moved back east, you see the landscape that you grew up in in a whole different light and a new appreciation."

Gratitude also arose when working with writer Tim Kane, Grounds for Sculpture Chief Curator Tom Moran and others on his book. He said that Kane "became almost like my biographer," penning 13 chapters that didn't even make it into "John Van Alstine." Ultimately, they hope to find a home for them in another book, Van Alstine said. But for now, the artist is just relishing the opportunity to reminisce through The Artist Book Foundation's latest publication.

"To go back and really look at things and kind of assess where you are and think about how things all happened," he said, "that was really rewarding."

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at bcassidy@berkshireeagle.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


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