Awareness of fine lines serves Van Alstine well in sculpture and drawings

June 21, 1995|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

John Van Alstine's sculptures combining pieces of natural stone and found manufactured objects have always possessed the virtue of opposites brought together in a symbiotic relationship, thanks to Van Alstine's unerring judgment.

An old piece of steel machinery, placed between two big granite rocks, as in "Vela II" from Van Alstine's current show at Grimaldis, reminds you of the line about Ginger Rogers giving Fred Astaire sex and Fred giving Ginger class. The piece of machinery makes the rocks look like they were shaped and refined just to keep it company; they in turn make the piece of machinery look as uncalculated as a natural object. And the right balance of all the work's visual elements -- scale, proportion, color, texture, weight -- is as carefully achieved as the physical balance of part on part. The same idea, attempted by a lesser artist, could so easily look like a gimmick -- a balancing act as just a balancing act -- but with Van Alstine it never does.

This show includes both pieces made of stone and actual found objects, and pieces made of stone and bronze castings of found objects. Instead of a real scythe handle or anvil, we have them cast in bronze, which changes the effect subtly but definitely.

The smoothness of the bronze in relationship to the natural roughness of the stone provides more of a dance of opposites. As if to emphasize this, Van Alstine has chosen in three of these works to juxtapose the scythe handle's graceful, fluid curve with the stone's solidity.

But here again, his sure sense of gesture leads him in the right direction: In the smaller two of these works, "Longhandle (Echo I)" and "Implement/Wall Work I," the stone element plays a subordinate role, providing a stop and a foil for the flow of the rest of the piece. In the third, "Implement XXV (River Arc)," the stone element is a curved piece of a mill wheel, complementing in its own muscular way the more sinuous curve of the scythe handle.

Here and there, Van Alstine allows his sense of humor to break through strongly in these works, with happy results. In "Juggler," a wormlike curved element springs from its stone base, balancing a sphere at its lower end and a trio of objects, including an anvil, at its upper end. This unlikely combination lumbers endearingly skyward. A much smaller work, "Walking Vessel," employs a pitchfork as a longlegged animal swaying gently forward with a Carmen-Miranda-like chapeau on its head.

The humor carries over to Van Alstine's drawings, which combine a jaunty line reminiscent of Claes Oldenburg's with a fine sense of color. The brilliant pastel colors of "Flower" are almost too beautiful for their own good, but the operative word there is almost -- they never quite stray over the line. Here, as everywhere it seems, Van Alstine knows how far to go, and how far not to.

AT GRIMALDIS

What: Sculpture and drawings by John Van Alstine

Where: The C. Grimaldis Gallery, 523 North Charles St.

When: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, through July 1.

Call: (410) 539-1080.

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