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Introductory Essay

Bones of the Earth, Spirit of the Land

by Nicholas Capasso, Curator - DECORDOVA Museum, Boston

Nick Capasso, Ph.D., is Associate Curator at the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park in Lincoln, Massachusetts. He is also an art historian, critic, and lecturer in the fields of outdoor sculpture and public art. In 1996, Capasso organized the DeCordova exhibition John Van Alstine: Vessels and Voyages.

The Sculpture of John Van AlstineWhen asked to consider the intersection of landscape and the visual arts, one immediately calls to mind images of two-dimensional art, namely landscape painting and photography. These two media - one ancient, and the other a product of the Industrial Revolution - allow for both conjectural and relatively objective pictures of our environs, seen always at some remove, as if through a window. Or, in a more contemporary context one might consider sculptural and architectural artworks placed within the landscape, such as the site-specific earthworks or land art pioneered by post-Minimalist artists Robert Smithson, Nancy Holt, Michael Heizer, and others in the 1960s and 1970s. These works are not images, but objects and places, inextricably tied to the land both physically and conceptually.

The sculpture of John Van Alstine occupies a unique territory, mediating amongst image, object, and place. Van Alstine is a sculptor, first and foremost, a maker of impermeable, obdurate, and often monumental objects. These objects, however, also have an imagistic quality, complete with the representational, associational, and metaphoric qualities inherent to pictures. Yet at the same time they speak strongly of place, in microcosmic and macrocosmic terms. Geology and cosmology collide. Narratives about and within landscapes are layered like sediment. Van Alstine mines the earth to excavate its beauty, its terrors, and its potential for the expression of powerful and subtle aspects of the human condition.

Even in Van Alstine's two-dimensional work - pastel drawings and color photography - his concern for the landscape as stage and actor is pre-eminent. This is not to imply that the artist's work is entirely delimited by his perceptions of the land. He deals also with the figure, the monument, abstraction, assemblage, storytelling (particularly myth), cultural history, and natural history; but a sense of the land, its gravity and embrace, its settings and stories, is the ground upon which all else rests.

The hard root of the land is stone, and for Van Alstine, "stone is everything," the physical and metaphysical basis of all his work. None of his sculptures are without a stone, or the image of a stone. Stone is the earth and the land, stone is terra firma. Van Alstine uses stone as a place, a home, a figural presence, and a magical transformational material. Stone marries nouns and verbs, and dissolves the dualism of image and object.

Van Alstine grew up with stone, and lived close to the land, in the Adirondack Mountains. He saw rocky promontories, glacial granite boulders, stone walls, and split-stone fences in his boyhood travels through upstate New York and northern New England. As an art student, he saw stone as the foundation of the history of sculpture, and began to believe passionately that "stone is sculpture." Deeply impressed by the works of the ancients, he found compelling parallels in Modernist sculpture. Van Alstine began his career as a sculptor of stone by emulating the great abstract carvers of the twentieth century: Constantin Brancusi, Hans Arp, and Henry Moore. He chose white Vermont marble as his first medium for its softness, purity, and malleability, and with it he carved sinuous, sensual, biomorphic abstractions. Many of these works, like those of his chosen predecessors, referenced the figure with their verticality and suggestions of human corporeality, but many also were bound up with the land. One of his earliest sculptures, Gaea (1973) is an homage to Mother Earth, while the roughly parallel edges in works like Vertical Series #3 (1974) were directly inspired by the tracks of skis in virgin snow (Van Alstine had been a competitive skier in his youth).

Soon, however, the young artist's interest drifted from the finely wrought elegance of early Modernism to the rough-hewn rocks used by sculptors like Isamu Noguchi. Van Alstine's intentions changed and matured. He was no longer interested in carving stone to reveal something else, but in allowing stone to retain its integrity, its natural weight, density, and texture. By respecting the stone, and allowing it to speak for itself on its own terms, Van Alstine was able to summon forth a new and wide range of content. At the same time, he shifted his process from the subtractive method of carving to the additive method of collage in three dimensions. In 1975, he embarked upon a series of Stone Assemblages. These were large-scale outdoor agglomerations of rough-cut stones, straight from the quarry. To these he sometimes added wood and steel elements in sprawling compositions that dealt with the formal tensions among the three disparate materials.

With the Stone Assemblages, Van Alstine laid out the beginnings of the material, procedural, and compositional underpinnings of all his later work.

In 1976, John Van Alstine moved to Laramie, Wyoming to accept a teaching post at the local State University. While there, his love of raw stone deepened, and his interest in landscape intensified. In Wyoming he saw the land stripped bare, and saw clearly for the first time the awesome power of nature as sculptor. The rocks of his boyhood back east had been nestled in soil, swaddled by greenery, and framed by the closely compacted rolling topography. Out West, aridity, erosion, and the vast and stark lay of the land combined to produce an unfamiliar sublimity. Mountains, buttes, stone arches, glacial scars, exposed geologic layering, and colossal boulders loomed about him and the real danger of rockslide and avalanche was ever present. The bones of the earth protruded from its desiccated flesh, and the landscape seemed a place fraught with potent and perilous tensions.

In a new body of work, the Nature of Stone series, Van Alstine set out to express his perceptions of this environment. He assembled huge sculptures using nothing but giant slabs of Colorado flagstone and forged steel rods. No pins or welds hold these materials together. Their structural integrity depends upon actual physical forces held in precise tensions and balances. In his Stone Piles, Arches, Torques, and Props, the artist interlocked conflicting masses and weights in arrested motions that strain with potential energy. They are visually and physically precarious - their crushing capabilities are palpable - and their scale and compositions echo the exposed geology of the Western landscape. The Nature of Stone works explore not only the bald facts of rock, but also deal with the tortuous forces that underlie the landscape, the primeval tectonic writhing of the Earth itself and its potential for extreme physical danger.

Los Arcos, 1983

In the Nature of Stone, Van Alstine worked within the then-current tenets of post-Minimalism, in which sculptors used minimal, predominantly geometric forms and the direct properties of materials to elicit emotional responses, often on a quite visceral level. In his next body of work, Van Alstine set himself completely apart from his art historical roots and his contemporaries. In 1980 he moved back to the East Coast to teach at the University of Maryland. Shortly after his return, he created a pivotal new sculpture, In the Clear (1983). This artwork again brings stone and steel together, but now in harmony rather than strident discord. The stone and steel elements embrace, and work together, rather than seeming to try to pull each other to pieces. They dance, rather than fight. Moreover, In the Clear refers not so much to the structural properties of the landscape, but more to a sense of place. This place is, to be sure, non-specific and highly abstracted, but it seems a place upon the land rather than a force within the earth. Van Alstine even went so far as to craft a vertical steel element that suggests vegetation.
In subsequent sculptures, these direct landscape allusions proliferated as Van Alstine continued to introduce aspects of imagery within his dynamic formal and material assemblages.

In Drastic Measures (1984-87) and Luna (1985), the artist began experimenting with applied color and quasi-representational shapes, to suggest plant forms, and the moon and sky, respectively. In Los Arcos (1985), the soaring steel member that unites its stone foundations makes conscious reference to gigantic natural stone arches. And the compositions of all of these sculptures suggest vignettes within the landscape, places that can be imaginatively inhabited, and that are affectively distinct from each other. In contrast to the Nature of Stone series, these works are lighter, playfully evocative, and reflect the artist's fond memories of Western places rather than his direct experience of the powers of that land.

In the late 1980s and 1990s, Van Alstine arrived at the style and themes for which he has become best known. He continues to juxtapose stone and steel, but has added found objects and bronze castings of stones and found objects to his set of assembled elements. The work is ever more imagistic (especially given the presence of objects from the real world) and increasingly narrative. The landscape vignettes of the early 1980s seemed in part like empty stage sets waiting for players and actions. Now, mythological and metaphorical tales are told in sculptures wherein the distinctions between image/object/place, and actor/action/stage, are marvelously blurred.
Two primary themes in this recent work involve tools and vessels, and both are tied to Van Alstine's abiding concern with the land. Struck by the collection of nineteenth-century tools at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History, and following an art- historical precedent established by David Smith and Jim Dine, Van Alstine began to include actual utilitarian implements in his sculptural compositions. He was most drawn to agricultural tools - tools that help to work the land - and juxtaposed objects like rakes, plow blades, saws, and anvils with his ever-present stones in celebration of the joys and hardships of bending the land to one's will. Not surprisingly, he was particularly interested in the sledge, an antiquated conveyance on runners used for hauling stone over rough ground. In Van Alstine's Sledges, massive rock slabs become carrier and cargo, both the landscape and the laborious traversing of the landscape.

Sledge 1992 Charon's Steel Styx Passage, 1996 Tether (Boy's Toys), 1995

The Sledges - stone boats - also relate to Van Alstine's simultaneous involvement with the idea and image of vessels. The vessels - often with nautical associations that turn his sculptures into abstracted seascapes - involve metaphorical journeys across space, time, and place. Marine scrap yards in Jersey City, New Jersey, where the artist had relocated his studio, provided buoys, cleats, chains, oars, floats, and boats, to juxtapose with slabs of stone. In works like Tiller (1994), the stone flies aloft like a magical sail, and in the mythically titled Atlas (High Roller) (1995), Labyrinth Trophy (1996), and Charon's Steel Styx Passage (1996), the stones provide earthbound anchors for sweeping, orbital narratives that link land, sea, and sky, as well as ideas surrounding the boundaries between life and death. Other vessel sculptures address a type of transportation that is as technological as it is mythological. In Tether (Boys Toys) (1995), a huge airplane fuel tank that resembles nothing more than a missile rises above a puny earth, and in Sacandaga Totem (1997), a central stone pylon provides the shaft to a rocket whose vertical aspiration is forever held in check by its mass. Works like these indicate Van Alstine's concern with the fate of the land, and of the earth, in the face of unchecked science and industry. Taken as a whole, the recent sculptures that involve tools, vessels, and voyages sum up and extend the formal and conceptual issues explored in Van Alstine's earlier work. They also establish places of contemplation not about landscape per se, but about humanity's many physical, cultural, and spiritual relationships with the land and our planetary home.

A great many of Van Alstine's recent sculptures are intended for outdoor display, and the grounds that encompass his current studio in Wells, New York (back in the Adirondacks) are filled with new work. In this rural setting, framed by mountains, dense foliage, and a river, the artist wrestles with issues of size, scale, placement, and sight lines so that he fully understands each sculpture's potential for outdoor display. His goal for all of his outdoor sculptures is to address not only the landscape intrinsically, but extrinsically as well, in direct dialogue with the natural features that surround them. Although not entirely site-specific, Van Alstine's sculptures large scale outdoor works do elicit meaning through their juxtapositions with existing landscapes, and also transform places from the mundane to the magical.

John Van Alstine's long involvement with placing sculpture in the outdoors has led him on a number of occasions to accept commissions for works of public art. These sculptures, chosen through competitions and sited in public places, extend the artist's concerns with the landscape by introducing site-specificity and conceptually linking terrestrial place with cosmological space.
Trough, 1982 Solstice Calendar, 1985-6

His first public sculpture was Trough (1980-82), commissioned by the city of Billings, Montana to commemorate the 100th anniversary of its founding. Trough consists of two mammoth leaning slabs of granite, connected and supported by linear steel members, and could be considered as the monumental culmination of the Nature of Stone series with its references to geologic place, time and motion. But Trough exists as something more. Its title and the relative positions of its stones refer directly to the steep Yellowstone River valley into which Billings is wedged.

The sculpture echoes the local rural sublimity of place in a downtown urban space.
Van Alstine's next commission, Solstice Calendar (1985-1986), for Austin College in Sherman, Texas introduced a new and enduring theme to his public work: stone as a physical and conceptual mediator between earth and the heavens. Solstice Calendar is a pair of colossal rough Texas granite pylons that straddle a long horizontal stone member. Every day at noon the sun passes between the pylons, and a steel bar located high up between the pylons casts its shadow on the stone below. This stone is marked to indicate the annual solstices and equinox. This simple calendar was influenced by Van Alstine's study of ancient archaeoastronomic architecture in the British Isles and Meso-America, and by the work of contemporary land artists  who also created monumental yet basic solar calendars. Solstice Calendar not only locates the Austin College campus in space and time, it also bridges academic disciplines often deemed mutually exclusive by inhabiting a site directly between the school's arts and sciences buildings.

Artery Sunwork, 1993

In Sunwork (1989-1992), created for the Institute of Defense  Supercomputer Research Center in Bowie, Maryland, a soaring stainless steel gnomon projects from a massive chunk of earthbound granite. Here Van Alstine created another sculpture that acts as a scientific instrument, but in keeping with its high-tech site, Sunwork is more advanced and precise. It acts as a clock as well as a calendar. In stone pavement around the sculpture, lines mark out the hours of the day like a conventional sundial. Moreover, on a long horizontal surface, an anelemma is inscribed. This diagram, shaped like an elongated figure 8, shows the declination of the sun and equation of time for each day of the year, corrected for the precise longitude of the site. When the shadow of the tip of the gnomon strikes the anelemma, it registers noon on any given day. Van Alstine's primitive mathematical/cosmological computer helps locate this place in cultural history, as well as within the landscape and the cosmos.

Sunwork was followed in 1993 by Artery Sunwork, in Bethesda, Maryland. This sculpture combines the formal and conceptual concerns of its two calendrical predecessors. Sited in a plaza along a heavily trafficked urban avenue, Artery Sunwork consists again of an anchoring stone that supports a soaring vertical element: an aspiring bronze arc surmounted by a stainless steel gnomon. The shadow of the gnomon, as it touches a precisely demarcated face of the bronze element, indicates solstices and equinox. The sculpture thus carries a consciousness of the relationships of place to earth to sky into the hustle and bustle of downtown where such grounding truths are often ignored or forgotten in a welter of streets, signs, lights, advertisements, and architecture.


Throughout the history of art, sculptors have created drawings that relate to their three-dimensional work, and John Van Alstine is no exception. His drawings are large, richly colored pastels that are neither working drawings for sculptures in process, nor two-dimensional representations of finished works. They exist as separate and distinct works of art, informed by and informing, but not necessarily tied to, specific sculptures. Van Alstine uses drawing to further explore his interest in the potential of imagery for expression. When images occur in his sculptures - of tools, of vessels, of figures, of places - the sheer physicality of objects imposes certain limits. But in the illusionistic world of the two-dimensional, objects and images are freed from the laws of nature. Without gravity, density, weight, or friction, new and more dynamic juxtapositions and compositions are possible, and narratives become more dramatic. Potential energy explodes into kinetic energy. Objects teeter, swirl, loom, lurch, and lean. The landscape comes alive, dances, runs, leaps, and turns itself inside-out in paroxysms of joy and terror.

Sphere with Spikes
Hornhammer (green handle)


Tellingly, between 1976 and 1980, when Van Alstine was experiencing and expressing the powers within the Western landscape in sculpture, he created a portfolio of photographs: the Easel Landscapes. These 18 x 24-inch color C-type prints are united by the presence in each image of a flat and centered sculpted steel easel that frames particular features within larger compositions. Made in and en route to and from Wyoming, the Easel Landscapes provided the artist with a disciplined process for literally focusing on the landscape, and they contain some of his favorite landforms that reappear in his sculpture. As works of art in their own right, however, they deal with multiple issues germane to the intersections of photography and the landscape. Their multiple nested frames (easel, photograph, paper mat, frame) play tricks with perspective cues, and collapse or telescope perceived distances, calling into question how the eye and mind perceptually process the landscape via photography. The Easel Landscapes also wryly comment on how the landscape is figuratively framed by photography, experience, memory, art history, and popular culture.