Glens Falls, New York
When Covid-19 shut everything down in March 2020, John Van Alstine was at his home and studio deep in the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York. Like other artists, he suddenly had loads of studio time. For a sculptor, the studio is always part of the equation, but this was totally different. In the past, Van Alstine interspersed creative time with installing exhibitions far and wide, as well as a robust itinerary of leisure travel. These trips often moved him in different aesthetic directions, as he responded to what he saw and experienced. For the first time in his 40-year career, this was all cut off. A period of what he calls “creative disruption” ensued.
“Reflecting on 2020: New Sculpture by John Van Alstine”(on view through January 2, 2022) reflects on that experience. The 17 small-scale bronze and stone works in this intimate show revisit some of his dominant themes—including the myth of Sisyphus and the figure of the juggler, as well as his “Pyxis Awry” and “Portals and Passages” series—now repurposed to bring meaning to this unusual and politically charged time.
A freak storm in the fall of 2019 set the stage for these new works. Historic flooding rose almost to his house, toppling two large bronze sculptures installed on the property. The works destroyed by the flood led Van Alstine to other bronze remnants in the storage area adjacent to his studio, triggering a return to the material after many years. (In much of Van Alstine’s sculpture, the marriage of steel and stone serves as the central axis of his vocabulary.)
The resulting bronze and stone works take on an evocative tone, a sense of urgency not normally found in his sculptures, which rarely wade into overt political commentary. With Van Alstine becoming more confrontational, the objects are like entries in a diary, reflecting highly charged moments, the ups and downs of the crisis, and how he interpreted events as they unfolded in real time. They are powerful archival documents of a specific time and place. With titles and dates stamped into the bronze in many cases, they take on an archaeological feel.
Pyxis Awry 2021, Wedge-First Rapid was created during the second Trump impeachment trial in mid-February 2021. Van Alstine was deeply troubled by the inaction of the United State Senate, and this sculpture reflects his disgust. The vessel form is an apt metaphor for persons or groups of people who have lost the bearings of their inner compass and as a result are adrift and in danger.
Charon—Navigating 2020 responds to the number of deaths from the pandemic and the impact of Covid-19 on certain populations. The “Portals and Passages” series, with careening and swerving vessels, keenly illustrates the back and forth—the “in and out”—everybody was experiencing at the time: the slide into darkness with pandemic restrictions, a return to more open society, then back into the darkness of lockdown over the winter of 2020–21.
Juggler 5-20 captures the sense that, while life has always been a balancing act, the pandemic magnified the juggling of commitments and relationships. The last few years have undoubtedly altered the choreography of our lives, and the ongoing effects will possibly impact Van Alstine’s sculptures for years to come.