Objects captured in motion

Art: The sculpture of John Van Alstine puts together heavy things that appear unstable, yet are all about balance.

Fine Arts

June 22, 1999|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

The gravity-defying sculptures of John Van Alstine, on view at C. Grimaldis Gallery through July 10, seem perfectly fitted to critic Arthur C. Danto's clever postmodern definition of art.

Danto wrote that for a work to be considered art, it must fulfill two conditions. First, it has to be "about" something. And second, it must embody its meaning in the way it is constructed.

This is, admittedly, a rather expansive definition of art -- some would argue that it is almost useless -- but it does have the advantage of being able to encompass such widely divergent works as, say, a Madonna by Raphael, a drip painting by Pollack and a Brillo box by Warhol.

Indeed, it was the appearance of Pop Art in the 1960s that forced Danto, who is a philosopher as well as a critic, to invent a definition that made soup cans and comic-book drawings comprehensible as part of the canon of Western art.

Danto's idea (and perhaps I am oversimplifying) is basically that all art aspires to the condition of philosophy. Since philosophy is concerned largely with the meaning of things, it is enough for something to be considered a work of art if it means something and if it embodies the expression of that meaning.

This is a formula for considering art primarily in terms of ideas. It basically throws out the concept of aesthetics, of formal beauty expressed in terms of pattern, color and line.

Most people, however, react emotionally and viscerally to painting or sculpture, even when that reaction is not always appropriate. But Danto's definition is one way of trying to make sense of Van Alstine's sculptures, which seem to me to speak more to the intellect than to the heart.

Van Alstine puts together large, found objects made out of heavy, inanimate materials -- stone, steel, iron and wood -- in such a way that they seem to float weightlessly in space, apparently defying the laws of physics as well as the visual expectations of the viewer. Most of these pieces are intended as outdoor sculptures.

The artist has described these works as expressions of arrested motion, a sort of three-dimensional snapshot in which objects we imagine ought to be tumbling out of control seem frozen in their pell-mell rush to the ground.

One could say that these monumental assemblages, which appear to be so unstable, are about balance -- the balance of opposing forces and of dissimilar types of objects and materials. The idea of balance, of course, can easily be extended into our own experience, in which people have to balance all sorts of things that often feel precarious -- jobs, money, family obligations, etc.

Alstine's sculptures embody this idea, and because they do, they fulfill Danto's expansive definition of art. But to my mind, at least, they also leave something to be desired.

A piece such as Alstine's "Pompadour," for example, is a huge granite and steel construction in which a slab of raw stone perches precariously on the end of a black metal arc. It certainly express the idea of balance in the abstract. But it does not, to my eye, possess the quality of poise.

Balance is an objective correlation of mutually opposing forces. Poise, on the other hand, expresses character.

In each of our lives, we are expected to juggle job, money and family relations so that the whole structure of public and private responsibilities doesn't come crashing down around our ears.

But in addition to keeping all these balls in the air, we are also enjoined to make it look easy. Poise is grace under pressure, and it is just as essential to the art of living as grubbing out a subsistence.

Van Alstine's sculptures are balanced but not poised, and so I am led to wonder what lesson I am supposed to draw from them. That it is OK to be an inveterate schlemiel, clumsily bumbling one's way through life?

On the other hand, our postmodern world already is requiring us to learn to honor beauty in unconventional forms.

Van Alstine suggests that life, even at its most graceful, is a close-run thing -- that the juggling act is, after all, only an act to cover up a desperate life-and-death struggle.

The Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gassett always insisted that life is a precarious balance.

The big pieces of life are rough-hewn, ungainly and forever threatening to come tumbling down. Under those circumstances, if you can just manage to keep all your balls in the air, you're doing well -- even beautifully, one might say.

Pub Date: 6/22/99

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