Back

ARTIST'S STATEMENT

Figurative References in the Work of John Van Alstine

The scale of the human body is critical in how we understand and relate to all things -- landscape, architecture, furniture, domestic objects, and certainly sculpture. Although very few, if any, of my works are considered traditionally figurative, there are many ways in which the human figure is influential. This exhibition acknowledges the role the figure plays in some of these works and provides an opportunity to examine them more closely.

I received my art training in what I would consider a typical 70’s university art department where minimalism and cool abstraction were the focus. Serra, Smithson, Morris, deSuverio, and the later work by David Smith were some of the people that shaped my early thinking about sculpture. The figure was not part of this path, and for many years I denied its existence when it seemed to appear in my work. I have, however, come to realize that good work operates on many levels and the more ways it can be seen and interpreted, the richer it becomes.

My work is certainly not solely about the figure. In fact, for the most part, it is centered around assemblage. Found objects with their individual histories and associations are plucked from one context and combined with others creating new "things." These new entities present us with fresh and innovative ways to view, relate and think about familiar objects -- making the common powerfully uncommon. Even the stone, which is traditionally employed in sculpture through a subtractive process -- starting with a block and removing all that is not wanted -- in my work is used as a found assemblage element with little or no carving.

A few of my pieces rely on the formal aspects of a recognizable figure as a general framework or point of "entrance" for the piece. Odalisque 1989, a large floor work, was one of the first "mature" works where I recognized and embraced the figure. The title, combined with the arrangement of its formal elements, suggests a reclining female "chamber companion." (Odalisque has appeared a number of times in art history, perhaps most notably by the French Romantic painter Ingres.) This sensuous notion, contrasted with the raw and ragged character of the rough-hewn granite, heavy rusted steel, and actual iron anvil, creates a compelling sculptural statement generated by pairing opposites. Similarly, in a more recent large outdoor work Atlas (Highroller) 1995, the idea of a figure shouldering a globe acts as a starting point for understanding the piece. The two-pronged title, referring to the mythic bearer of the Earth and indeterminacy of gambling, sets up the idea of possible planetary disaster. (The globe here is represented by a casting of an actual explosive mine casing resembling a round fused bomb.) Sentinel (Tool for Alberto) 1998, incorporates a small hand tool -- an inoperable set of calipers -- the shape and positioning suggesting a figure standing at attention and on guard. Its relatively tall, thin character evokes a connection and conveys homage to the lean and sinewy figurative work of the influential Italian sculptor Alberto Giacometti.

Portraits are most often associated with the figure. It is a common belief that all art is, in a sense, a portrait of its maker -- a mirror of all the aspects that created it. A few of my works consciously incorporate this notion. Reconsidering Sisyphus 1992-94 was built as a self-portrait expressing my own creative struggle with stone. The formal arrangement of the granite and steel elements suggests a figure frozen in the act of prying or pushing a stone. This struggle parallels that of the mythological Sisyphus who was cast to a life of perpetual labor pushing a stone to the top of a mountain, only to have it roll back down. I am continually (and often literally) pushing stones to a creative peak, and once reached, compelled to start again on a new work. The title arises from the ideas put forth in Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus where he "reconsiders" Sisyphus’ labors. For the artist, the creative experience is not a goal. One never reaches and stays at the "top," but rather spins in a continual regenerative cycle where value and reward emerge from the process.

In the Juggler Series, the multi-layered idea of "portrait/self-portrait" is also central. Often during the process of creating work, I quite literally become a "juggler," balancing and keeping afloat many heavy elements such as anvils, large chunks of stone, pieces of bronze, etc. The finished sculptures in this series possess a whirling and teetering character which dramatically showcase objects "frozen" in midair. It is especially impressive when the work reaches the height of 10 to 12 feet as in Juggler I 1994. This same drama and sense of precariousness are also present in the pedestal scaled pieces such as Juggler II 1995 and Juggler IV 1998. The notion of juggling evokes the likes of jesters and circus clowns. This series, in addition to being a reflection of the artist, also conveys a more universal portrait, suggesting a broader realm reminding us that we all are jugglers on our own stage, keeping all aspects of our lives -- family, career, finances, friends, fun, etc. -- up, floating and vital. Perhaps like the circus jester the secret of sane survival is maintaining joyfulness and a sense of humor through it all.

Movement within a sculpture can also be expressed using the human figure. One of my sculptural objectives is to breath "life" and airiness into the heavy, earth-bound elements I use. In this sense I am a choreographer. The idea of choreographed movement is demonstrated in the Pique Terre series. Here the title is taken from a specific position in classical ballet where the pointed toe (pique) touches lightly on the ground (terre), the other foot is firmly planted while one arm makes a sweeping, connecting, gestural arc. While the piece does not resemble a figure in the traditional sense, once clued to the title, it is easy to see the suggested human movement. Pique Terre VI 1997, clearly exudes the sense of motion and levity even though its elements are extremely dense and heavy. Choreography of a different type is demonstrated in Angler 1998, where the swishing curves and implied flexibility of the upper element of the sculpture allude to the graceful and alluring movement of someone engaged in the act of fly fishing.

Some works reference specific parts or portions of the body. In Pompadour 1997, the oversized upper stone playfully suggests the "poofy," exaggerated hairstyle swept high from the forehead, named for the Marquise de Pompadour, mistress of Louis XV and sported in our own century by the likes of Elvis and Elvis wannabes. Strange Fruit III and Strange Fruit VI, both 1989, might be first interpreted as strange "fruits of labor" harvested from the studio. The central elements of both pieces simultaneously suggest vagina and phallus. When these ideas are coupled they imply ripeness, production and reproduction. In the table-sized work Phalanx 1992 (from Latin -- bones forming the fingers) the manipulated pitchfork element is presented as an extension of the artist’s hand. In this piece, as in all my works, tools are presented as the artists’ allies, helping them reach their aspirations and symbols of their labors and accomplishments. A further twist on the phalanx theme is evident in Fingers 1997, where the shape of a bronze-cast animal antler is suggestive of a hand.

Scale as determined by body size is vital in sculpture. In the last group of works discussed, our relationship with them vis-a-vis our body size is what imbues them with their power. In Chalice IV 1998, which is 74 inches high, a section of an aeronautical fuselage is transformed into an upward reaching, "cup of life." It is precisely the fact that it is larger than life, wildly exaggerated in terms of any human function that recasts it into a dynamic, aspiring, spiritual vessel. Longhandle (Echo I) 1995, Implement XXVII (Stout Handle) 1996, and Slate Cudgel 1998, are all presented as tools or implements. Much the way architecture and furniture address the human scale, these works, whether you see them as axes, adzes or weapons with suggested handles and blades, are understood through the relationship to the figure and our projection of their possible functional use.

My sculpture operates on many levels and is open to a variety of interpretations. I believe its power is generated by the juxtaposition of impure found objects, layers of association, symbolism, and narrative. The figure is one more important element that, when added, enriches this complex mix.

-- John Van Alstine, June 1998


SELECTED PUBLIC COLLECTIONS

BALTIMORE MUSEUM OF ART, Baltimore, MD
CARNEGIE INSTITUTE OF ART, Pittsburgh, PA
CORCORAN GALLERY OF ART, Washington, DC
DELAWARE MUSEUM OF ART, Wilmington, DE
DENVER ART MUSEUM, Gift of List Foundation, NYC
HIRSHHORN MUSEUM AND SCULPTURE GARDEN, Washington, DC
HERBERT F. JOHNSON MUSEUM, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY
NATIONAL MUSEUM OF AMERICAN ART, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC
NATIONAL RESERVE BOARD, Washington, DC
NEWARK MUSEUM OF ART, Newark, NY
MUSEUM OF MODERN ART, Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon, Portugal
PHOENIX ART MUSEUM, Phoenix, AZ
THE PHILLIPS COLLECTION, Washington, DC


SELECTED SOLO EXHIBITIONS

NOHRA HAIME GALLERY, New York City, 1998, 1996, 1994, 1991, 1990, 1989, 1988
DECORDOVA MUSEUM, Lincoln, MA "Vessels and Voyages" 1996-97
GRIMALDIS GALLERY, Baltimore, MD, 1997, 1995, 1992, 1984
KENDALL CAMPUS ART GALLERY, Miami-Dade Community College, Miami, FL, October 1997
DARTMOUTH COLLEGE, Hanover, NH, Studio Art Exhibition Program, 1995
TROYER FITZPATRICK LASSMAN GALLERY, Washington, DC, 1994
ART GALLERY, UNIVERSITY OF NEW HAMPSHIRE, Durham, NH, 1994
ART GALLERY, CLEVELAND STATE UNIVERSITY, Cleveland, OH, April 1994
SUN VALLEY CENTER FOR THE ARTS, Sun Valley, Idaho, February 1993
SONSBEEK INTERNATIONAL ART CENTER, Arnhem, The Netherlands, Sept.-Nov. 1991
NATIONAL ACADEMY OF SCIENCES, Washington, DC, "Documents" (drawings and related documents produced in conjunction with large-scale site-specific solstice projects,) January-March, 1991
MORRIS MUSEUM, Morristown, NJ, "New Jersey Artist Series," January-March, 1991
GERALD PETERS GALLERY, Santa Fe, NM, 1991, 1989
THE PHILLIPS COLLECTION, Washington, DC, April-June, 1987
OSUNA GALLERY, Washington, DC, 1989, 1985, 1983, 1981
DIANE BROWN GALLERY, New York, NY, 1984
ST. LAWRENCE UNIVERSITY, Brush Gallery, Canton, NY, 1984
HENRI GALLERY, Washington, DC, 1981
MICHIGAN STATE UNIVERSITY, MI, 1980

Top of Page

HOMEEXHIBITIONSGALLERIESCOLLECTIONSPUBLICATIONSEDUCATIONOFFICETOURS

Plattsburgh state University Send comments:Plattsburgh Art Museum
Website comments:David Driver