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Art Review: Exhibit sets up dialogue between two artists

Saturday, October 25, 2003

By Barry Hannegan

James Gallery inaugurates its exhibition program in its impressive new home in the West End with recent works by two well-established artists. Chuck Olson, who is familiar to local audiences from his many shows in Pittsburgh and regional venues, is represented by a stunning group of acrylics on paper or canvas. John Van Alstine has exhibited his commanding sculptures of granite and bronze in a number of East Coast and Midwest locales, including at Concept Art Gallery in 2001.

"Power Landscape: The Approach," by Charles Olson (72 inches square), hangs from the ceiling on the first floor of the new James Gallery, at 413 S. Main St., West End. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette)
Click photo for larger image.


Both artists are represented in the holdings of the Carnegie Museum of Art, among numerous public and corporate collections. Their respective careers, each spanning a full three decades, are replete with awards and shows and all the various forms that critical and commercial recognition can take. Only recently having met, the two artists also share a certain parallelism in their development; their work, exhibited side by side, sets up a demanding, stimulating dialogue.

Olson, who chairs the Fine Arts Department of St. Francis College, Loretto, often spends his summers on the French and Italian Rivieras. There he creates small works on paper inspired by deliberate observation, by chance perceptions and by the awareness of a dense cultural maturity that he uses as the basis for relatively large canvases completed during the winter, which in turn engender another series of smaller paintings on paper.

The first and most lasting impression of almost all Olson's paintings is that of color: explosive, subtle and vividly idiosyncratic. That reaction is followed immediately by an awareness of highly wrought paint surfaces and the free-wheeling handling that molds them.

"Out/Over/Water," an arcylic on canvas by Charles Olson, is one of the works in James Gallery's inaugural exhibition. For a review of the West End gallery's show, which also features sculptor John Van Alstine. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette)
Click photo for larger image.


The legacy of abstract expressionism is everywhere here and yet turned toward new ends. Painters of that movement rarely if ever attempted the extreme contrasts of value and the extended palette that Olson regularly demonstrates. Nor did abstract expressionism often allow itself the referential allusions that give these works their troubling, undefined claim on our subconscious and memory.

Most often, compositions are built around a single, dominating form, for example, "Coeu Simple X." At times, there is the distinct evocation of a landscape ("Looted/Lost" is one of the most evocative of these), while elsewhere we are dealing with seeming still-life arrangements. The artist moves easily between these compositional categories as if they were merely points on a continuum of shifting form/space relationships.

Sometimes, details of forms take on greater definition, and we probably are a bit disturbed by their humanoid or biomorphic suggestiveness -- "Germinal Fear," for example. Although Olson does not place great store in surrealism as a source of inspiration, Ernst and Miro come often to mind.

Olson's vigorous use of color is a fairly recent innovation in his work, an acknowledged antidote to the bleakness of winter in the Pennsylvania mountains. Curiously, the recent appearance of color, considerably more muted, in Van Alstine's sculpture is attributable to the same winter conditions in upstate New York, where he now lives.

Early on, Van Alstine abandoned direct carving in the manner of Brancusi in favor of a more direct exploitation of materials to arrive at his characteristic style of assembled pieces incorporating stone -- most often granite -- and metal, either bronze or steel.

The challenges of post-minimalist sculpture and an inherent sensitivity to the natural environment seem inevitably to have suggested David Smith and Noguchi as points of departure for Van Alstine's own severe and demanding work.

Van Alstine's work in rose granite and bronze, "Hornhammer-Rouge," is an example of his characteristic combination of stone and metal pieces. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette)
Click photo for larger image.


A growing appreciation of both the physical and associative values of stone was expressed in a group of relatively early works that incorporated regularly formed pieces of stone bound together or incorporated with steel rods manipulated with all the neat elegance of a Japanese obi. Time spent in the harsh, unclothed landscape of the far West seems to have encouraged a greater attraction to raw, eccentric chunks of granite, often waste from quarries. These have increasingly been used in combination with steel or bronze forms, which are most often found objects or casts from found materials.

Van Alstine is in the continuing process of creating his own personal iconography, which is evoked varyingly by materials, by forms and by their juxtaposition in his composite sculptures. Themes ultimately derive from his profound awareness of nature, especially landscape and its relation to humankind. References may be direct, as in "Rockslide," or more allusive, as in the intriguing "Hornhammer-Rouge."

Formal relationships are equally rich in a series of small assembled bronzes, such as "Juggler X." The composite sculptures are frequently conceived as open reliefs with two principal, parallel faces or elevations. Their component elements, either by form or articulation, ensnare or impose on space, and one is distantly reminded of Henry Moore.

The crisp incisiveness of Van Alstine's formal vocabulary and his choice of exceptionally hard materials should not distract the viewer from the passion informing these sculptures. It is a pity that at least a few of his drawings were not included in the show because they more readily reveal that quality, as well as the artist's vein of fantasy. Moreover, the drawings would have established a link between Van Alstine and the works of his co-exhibitor.

The two artists have in common a rich understanding about the relationship of their work to the worlds of art and nature. It is the polarity of their modes of expression that electrify the atmosphere of this exhilarating show.


Barry Hannegan is a freelance writer and the former director of historic design programs for the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation.

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