Sculptures defy laws of physics


It's always somewhat disconcerting for a critic to come across a work of art for which no words come readily to mind. That's a situation I find myself in over and over again when confronted by the sculpture of John Van Alstine, whose large-scale stone and steel constructions are on view at C. Grimaldis Gallery through the end of the month.

To be speechless is a tip-off that a mystery may be involved, and so I find myself returning to these enigmatic works in search of some revelation, some intuition as to what they might be. I once described them as "gravity-defying" assemblages that confound the laws of physics.

Van Alstine puts together large, found objects made out of heavy, inanimate materials - stone, steel, bronze - that seem to float weightlessly in space, apparently defying the laws of physics as well as the visual expectations of the viewer.

You anticipate at any moment that these huge, heavy pieces will tumble pell-mell to the ground, and when they don't, you search your brain for the trick involved in keeping them so precariously aloft.

It's apparently a question of balance; in engineering terms, inertia and force vectors are cleverly manipulated to suggest motion where there is none.

If this were all there were to Van Alstine's pieces, they would be no more than mild curiosities.

Now, however, I think that the mystery of these works lies not in the physics of their construction, but in their uncanny ability to evoke a sense of place. The balancing act may be just a strategy for arresting the viewer's attention long enough for the work to broach its real subject, which has to do with the landscape and the processes of wind, water and movement through which nature creates its fantastic forms.

Van Alstine uses a lot of unworried stone in his work, great slabs of natural granite and marble that look as if they've just arrived from the quarry even though they are cantilevered and levitating in the force fields created by his sculptures. These pieces have the elemental stability of the great rock formations of the American desert, where Van Alstine once lived and worked.

Viewed in this way, the sculptures are really three-dimensional landscapes, images of a vast and barren land carved by nature's hand into strange and improbable shapes. One imagines that if Georgia O'Keeffe had been a sculptor rather than a painter, this is what her mysterious painted desert might have looked like.

Sellars to the Wadsworth

Kate Sellars, who for many years served as deputy director and director of development at the Walters Art Gallery during the administration of Robert Bergman, has been named director of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Conn.

Sellars, who worked at the Walters from 1987 to 1994, left Baltimore to become deputy director of the Cleveland Museum of Art a year after Bergman was named director there in 1993.

She served as acting director of the Cleveland museum after Bergman's death in 1999, a position she also had held at the Walters before Gary Vikan was appointed director in 1994.

The Wadsworth Atheneum, founded in 1842, is one of the nation's oldest public art museums. Its holdings include ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman bronzes, Renaissance and Baroque paintings, European decorative arts, American furniture, Impressionist paintings, African-American art and artifacts, and the largest collection of Hudson River School landscape paintings in the world.

In related news, the Walters announced the hiring of Catherine Pierre as its new public relations manager.

Pierre, who comes to the museum from Baltimore magazine, where she was the arts editor, replaces Lynn Rossotti, who left in July to become public relations director at the Phillips Collection in Washington.

Pierre, who is well known in Baltimore for her arts writing, has a Master's degree in English literature from Indiana University.

In addition to handling media relations for the Walters, she will also oversee the museum's publications and Web site.

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