Among the many things sculptors John Van Alstine and John Ruppert share is a delight in having their sculpture communicate with people who aren't necessarily art sophisticated.
"At my studio in St. Louis," says Ruppert, "my next-door neighbor was an auto mechanic. He would come over and criticize. He was well-read but he would look at it purely from a non-art background, and I felt really good that it was successful on that level."
"I think," says Van Alstine, "people who have an experience with making things can relate to sculpture, once they get over that initial intimidation of, 'Oh, here it is in a gallery, with lights, with a big fat price tag on it, and all this other stuff'; if they approach it like a neighbor coming over with a beer and saying, 'What the hell is this?' And once the dialogue starts to open up it's amazing what the avenues of communication can be."
Sculpture, the same first name and this common outlook are only part of what Van Alstine and Ruppert share. They went to school together, they played football together, they worked at a resort in Maine together, they explored the Western landscape as a subject for art together, they have both taught at the University of Maryland -- albeit one after the other.
But they never had a show together, until now; they currently share the C. Grimaldis Gallery at 1006 Morton St. (through June 1), and their works complement one another surprisingly for sculpture that's the result of different approaches: Van Alstine's assembled and constructed of stone and steel, Ruppert's cast in metal.
"They're made completely differently," Van Alstine says. "I see myself as collaging in three dimensions, working more in a positive way. [Ruppert is] negative -- thinking of a space that's going to be filled." But, he also says, the works "have a similar kind of quality. There's a rawness, a roughness, an attention to natural texture."
The juxtaposition of their works also brings out the natural, organic, expressive, emotional side of Ruppert's sculpture, along with the balanced, orderly, rational side of Van Alstine's.
A few days ago, Ruppert came down to Grimaldis from Bolton Hill, where he lives with his wife and two daughters, and Van Alstine came from Jersey City, where he lives with his wife and two daughters, and the two sat down amid their work and talked -- about each other, about sculpture, about the past.
They met on the football field in upstate New York, when neither had any intention of becoming a sculptor. "I met John when we were sophomores," Van Alstine says. "Our first contact was football, before we actually started school. We were the two sophomores elevated to the varsity that year so we were sort of comrades in combat, I guess you'd say. I had no idea I was going to be doing sculpture. We were both really involved in athletics, and I went off on a semi-skiing scholarship thinking I'd be an
With Ruppert, "my mother was an artist -- she studied with Walt Kuhn -- and my father was an engineer, and out of that combination my dad said maybe you should be an architect. So I started to take art courses, because I had to build a portfolio for architecture school, and I thought, 'Well, I can do this.' "
After high school they went separate ways, though both worked summers at a Maine resort. And both pursued careers in large-scale sculpture after working with smaller-scale objects -- Ruppert with jewelry, Van Alstine with ceramics.
For both, the landscape has been an important stimulus, and when they taught together at the University of Wyoming in the summer of 1979 they experimented with it, Ruppert wrapping elements of the landscape with strips of surveyors' tape, Van Alstine setting up an empty frame and photographing the landscape through and around it, surrealistically.
Those summers in Maine, too, were a major influence on the latter. "The coast of Maine, the rocks, some of the quarries. In New England, the farmers' fence posts with chunks of granite sticking up -- those were real vivid," he says. Later, studying sculpture, "I was chopping away at stone and thinking, 'Hmmmm, maybe this is not really what I'm about.' I was relating more to those chunks of stone. Later I switched from that subtractive process with stone to using it as an assemblage material."
What got Ruppert into casting was the lack of it at Webster University in St. Louis, where he taught from 1980 to 1985. "One of the things I thought the sculpture department needed was casting. I had never done any large-scale casting, and just the activity, the process, makes you look at things differently; you look at them from the other side, in the opposite way. . . . That was the beginning of my casting."
Van Alstine taught at College Park from 1980 to 1986. When he left that post a national search resulted in the hiring the following year of Ruppert, who moved from St. Louis to Baltimore. In recent years the two showed, separately, at the George Ciscle Gallery, so it's fitting that their first show together is in the same space, taken over by Grimaldis after Ciscle closed.
Today, not only does each artist's work complement the other, but the way each sees his own and the other's work is complementary, too. For Van Alstine, his work comes out of the constructivist tradition, but also "I'm really using stone and steel as found objects." Ruppert, however, refers to Van Alstine's sculpture as, "gestural, and I've always thought of it as being very figurative." All of which locates Van Alstine's sculpture as the descendant of many of the strains of 20th century art.
For Ruppert, "my first real 20th century hero is Brancusi, and his way of getting to the singular essence of something." But Van Alstine also appreciates the way Ruppert's work reflects its process. "It's like it's about casting; it's not using casting to get to something else -- you're not casting horses -- the content is integral with the process."
And when Ruppert speaks of casting something and then "after it's made I figure out what to do with it," Van Alstine puts in, "You're making your own found objects." All of which relates Ruppert's sculpture to what a recent article in Artnews identified as the two lines of modern sculpture, that of the discrete object such as Brancusi's and the conceptual approach, which traces its roots to Duchamp's found objects.
In a pluralistic age such as this one, it's appropriate that these artists' work should embody more than one tradition. They both see this as a promising time for sculpture, because of its very multifaceted character just now. "Certainly there's been an explosion since the '50s, when things were pretty well defined," says Van Alstine. "There's room for people to move in lots of different arenas."
"I think also there's a traditional approach to materials coming back," says Ruppert. "If you think of it, people are casting, they're working with wood and stone, and making things in the tradition of sculpture. Sculpture, actually, I think is probably more exciting right now than painting. Because of the boundaries that have been broken down but also because that line of traditional techniques is being resurrected and reinvestigated."
What: Works by John Van Alstine and John Ruppert.
Where: C. Grimaldis Gallery, 523 N. Charles St.
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays through June 1.