John Van Alstine's sculptures have raised the balancing act to high art, and his show at Grimaldis takes that art to new levels of depth and humor.
Van Alstine's combinations of rock and pieces of industrial metal (or their replicas, cast in bronze) play the man-made off against the natural. But in this artist's hands there can often be a reversal of type, the rock so perfectly chosen for size and shape that it looks hand-made, while the metal pieces often have the graceful curves that one associates with natural forms. The parts are put together with such ingenuity that a seemingly larger and heavier object will balance on a smaller, weaker-looking one.
In this show, such juxtapositions can have connotations about the relative balance of the sexes, especially in "Amalthea." An animal horn, cast in bronze, supports a much larger and obviously much heavier piece of rock, which appears to spring upward from the horn-base. As Amalthea in Greek myth was Zeus' foster mother, often represented as a goat that suckled him, we understand that the male of the species springs from and is supported by the female.
Amalthea's broken horn, filled with flowers and fruits, was placed among the stars by Zeus. That is where we get the image of the cornucopia, symbol of the riches of none other than mother nature.
But there's a witty subtext here, too. The horn can also stand for male sexuality, so Van Alstine's reminding us that it takes two to tango. Or, to be more serious about it, the sexes balance and complete one another as Van Alstine's rock and metal do.
Elsewhere in this show, the sculptor balances his heavier with his lighter moments. "Quarry Totem" is a square monolith more than 7 feet tall held a few inches off the floor by three steel braces. It resembles not only a totem, venerated symbol of clan or family, but also a column, essential element of architecture. Both stand for aspects of civilization, and by raising this weighty symbol off the ground on three supports, Van Alstine reminds us that it takes humankind's ingenuity and cooperation to raise a civilization to the point at which it makes monuments to itself.
"Boys Toys II," on the other hand, is lighthearted -- but with a, shall we say, point to be made. A massive piece of stone holds up a pyramid of objects associated with males, whether youthful or mature: a sled, a ball, an anvil and, at the top, another horn. This, too, has its sexual connotations, but let's not make too much of them. The horn here, as elsewhere, stands for creativity of the mental as well as the physical kind. Van Alstine reminds us that growth and creativity result from a balance of work and play, what's serious and what's fun. And creativity he puts at the top, the ultimate goal of life, so this work also stands as a testament to the value of art.
It's possible to overinterpret Van Alstine, however. There's a great deal of sheer visual pleasure to be had from his works, whether the larger and more solemn sculptures such as "Wreath II," the jaunty smaller sculptures such as "Juggler" and "Branches" or the exhilaratingly colorful drawings such as "Konos" and "Nose Dive."
John Van Alstine
Where: C. Grimaldis Gallery, 523 N. Charles St.
When: 10 a.m. to 5: 30 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; through July 12
Pub Date: 6/10/97