The steel and stone sculptures on view at the Hyde Collection mark just about five decades worth of work for artist and Johnstown native John Van Alstine.
Displayed in two of the larger galleries in the museum, his sculptures juxtapose natural and man-made materials, balancing the two in ways that seem to defy gravity. While his work is categorized as abstract, there’s a narrative-driven theme running through it, inspired by Greek and Roman mythology.
“I use mythology in my work a fair amount. I see it as a kind of scaffolding to hang your ideas on,” Van Alstine said. “Many artists of all kinds of disciplines use mythology because we all have that sort of touchstone.”
That’s most obvious in his Sisyphean Circle Series, which compares the continual struggle of the mythological figure Sisyphus to that of the creative process. In one piece from the series that’s featured at the Hyde, a piece of granite juts out of the opening in a u-shaped piece of steel.
“I see that as a self-portrait, not the punishment part, but the process. I’m always pushing stone, literally getting it up in the air, but in a figurative way, [I’m] pushing to a creative peak,” Van Alstine said.
As soon as he’s reached the proverbial peak and completed one piece, he starts from the ground up on another.
“As an artist, you never really stop. You’re never really done,” Van Alstine said.
His creative career began in college at St. Lawrence University where he’d been recruited for the ski team. There, a professor suggested he take a sculpture class, which covered everything from welding to cutting stone and making molds.
“That was a turning point in my whole life. I signed up for that, and I never looked back,” Van Alstine said.
He eventually transferred to Kent State University, where he got a BFA and then went on to Cornell University where he got his MFA. For several years, he taught at the University of Wyoming and then at the University of Maryland, while working on his own sculptures. After several major commissions, he became a full-time artist in 1986 and moved up to Wells a year later, purchasing a historic former mill along the Sacandaga River.
He and Caroline Ramersdorfer, his wife and a fellow artist have their studios on the property, which sprawls out across nine acres and includes six buildings as well as a sculpture garden. (They’ll host open studio hours this weekend as part of the Sacandaga Valley Arts Network’s Art Trails event. See below for details).
Over the years, Van Alstine’s work has been exhibited in major shows around the country and he’s also had works exhibited in China. His works are featured in the permanent collections of the Carnegie Museum of Art, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American Art, among others.
The exhibition at the Hyde, titled “Transformations: The Art of John Van Alstine,” curated by Caroline M. Welch, gives viewers a look at each of the periods in his career, which spans nearly 50 years.
It’s inspired by a book on Van Alstine’s work that was published in late 2019. It was originally scheduled at the Hyde for 2020 but was pushed back because of the pandemic.
“It’s the earliest work along with lots of [other] periods, like when I was carving stone. Now I use stone as found object where I find it, pick the right pieces, and combine it with found steel and so my work is really about the amalgam or the marriage of the natural environment with the human-built environment and [that] tension, conflict and collaboration,” Van Alstine said.
The exhibit also gives a glimpse into the artist’s process, with conceptual drawings on view near the accompanying completed sculpture.
Van Alstine is always on the lookout for stone and metals to use, and it’s not uncommon for him to find pieces when he’s out driving his truck.
“If I find something that I like, I can pick it up, or if I have the crane, I’ll throw it on the back and bring it home,” Van Alstine said. “Then I start putting [them] together. They end up on the floor of the studio and [I] start looking at the dynamic relationships visually. What works? How can I attach it? What will hold up?”
Then it’s a matter of pinning and welding those elements together.
“At a certain point, I put nylon straps around it. Lift it up with gantries and some lifts that we have here. get it up in the air, so you can walk around it, do some more welding, and figure out how it’s going to stand up. When you think it’s done, you take the straps off, stand back and hopefully, it stands up,” Van Alstine said.
Seeing “Transformations,” which was installed at the Hyde earlier this summer, was a strange experience at first.
“It’s a little weird, actually. It’s 50 years’ worth of work. So I’m thinking, Wow, is this the apex of my career?” Alstine said.
At the same time, it’s been rewarding.
“Most people have been really amazed by the work,” Alstine said.
The Ellen Sinopoli Dance Company also recently choreographed a dance inspired by the sculptures.
“A lot of my work is about choreography, in a certain sense. I’m getting heavy pieces of metal, and stone up in the air and choreographed. To have dancers respond to that with their particular costumes . . . was just fantastic,” Van Alstine said.
“Transformations” will be on view at the Hyde through September 18. For more information visit hydecollection.org.
Van Alstine and Ramersdorfer’s studios and sculpture garden will be open from 10 am – 4 pm Saturday and Sunday as part of the SVAN Art Trails. The self-guided tour features artist studios around Sacandaga Valley. For more information visit svanarts.org/art-trails.
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Categories: Art, Life and Arts, Life and Arts