John Van Alstine – Branded

If we were to boil down the essence of John Van Alstine’s art to a single theme, it would be one of balance. Aesthetically, balance is a clear foundation of every sculpture. His art is the “marriage of the natural and man­made.” Nature is represented by stone in many forms, while the manmade is steel and other manipulated metals. The stone is placed precariously upon the steel at “the apex of its implied motion,” giving the illusion the rock is somehow floating in air, rather than placing all its weight on the metal frame. But the balance is not just in the placement of stone and steel. It is in every aspect of the process from beginning to end, an entire philosophy centered around a push and pull of creativity and the limits of physical reality.

Van Alstine’s projects start out mostly with found materials he appropriates from quarries and steel mills near his home in the New York Adirondacks. All his materials have been discarded by the manufacturers, but it is in this pile of rejection that Van Alstine finds the objects with the best potential. The stones he picks, for instance, “are the ones for one reason or another that the manufacturer can’t use because they are irregular or the grain is weird. But these are the ones I am more interested in because they have character and spirit that I can incorporate into the design of the steel.” When he goes out, Van Alstine looks for pieces that move and speak to him in some way. “I am by Dale Howard not forcing my will on the stone, but accepting them for what they are. It is a very sort of Asian, Japanese, Chinese way of looking at the material.” The juxtaposition of such acceptance in the natural material is manipulation of the manmade steel. In working the metal, Van Alstine is representing the “can­do,” industrial way of thinking that is most associated with the Western or American spirit. His work is an amalgamation of the Eastern and Western bodies of philosophy, creating pieces which illustrates the beauty of nature, subtly manicured by a human hand to showcase its true spirit.

Van Alstine’s process is one of flow. The design is driven by the material’s natural features, allowing for experimentation and play. He does not rely on math or formula, but more on what he calls a “farmer’s intuition.” Over forty years of experience has shaped his understanding of the material’s energy and how it will best be paired with the steel, which can be shaped very easily to fit his needs while still maintaining its strength and stability. He has a large crane which hoists the pieces into position so he may look at the movement of the piece before committing to the arrangement. If the different parts do not flow in the proper way, he can let them down again and start anew. The stone is often rigid, jagged, and unadulterated, an imposing body at the heart of every piece. The steel is often curved and shapely, a painted support that accentuates the raw energy of the stone.

In his large work Catapulta, Van Alstine’s piece of slate is shaped like the head of a massive dinosaur. It hangs precariously off the end of a metal beam, creating the impression that the rock will be launched into the air at any moment. The catapult, frozen in time looks effortless in how the different pieces were placed, and yet, the sculpture is a product of its own practical and physical limits. All the stones can detach from all of his pieces in order to reduce stress while traveling. All his metal is dipped in Zinc and powder­coated to prevent weathering. But, what Van Alstine is most proud of in his work, especially in Catapulta’s design, is the way he is able to problem solve while still maintaining the aesthetic integrity of the piece. “Finding a way for that piece to support itself, with that stone hanging way out there, and do it in an elegant and sort of way that seemed to compliment the rest of the sculpture was difficult.” He solved this problem by adding the red semicircle to the base. “That half circle is inch­thick steel. It weighs half a ton so there is weight to it. It was a way to aesthetically and structurally hold the piece together, that I feel was very effective.” Van Alstine’s art is pulled into a holding pattern of balance, one where the material’s own structure, both its strengths and limitations, pushed the piece into a finished work.

Van Alstine’s most proliferate body of work, the Sisyphus Series, is also the most important to the artist. It does not take a stretch of the imagination to understand why the myth of the Greek king forced to push a boulder uphill only to have it roll back down again is alluring to the artist. Of course, his material of choice draws parallels, he uses giant rocks after all, but what most attracts Van Alstine to the myth is a different way of looking at the act of pushing the boulder. He sees the act not as a punishment, but as representation of the process of an artist. For him, the myth is a self­portrait of how he creates his work since every time he finishes a project, he must return to square one to start again. For every artist, the process of creating artwork is an eternal uphill battle which both abuses and enriches their lives. But in this endless loop of creativity, where the artist succeeds only to start back at the beginning with a new project, there is still a sense of equilibrium. By constantly ending and beginning anew, Van Alstine does not move in a linear path, but an endless circle, always maintaining harmony within his craft. This movement, like a single wheel staying aloft because of its momentum, can be seen as the perfect form of balance.


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