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West End exhibit reveals compatibility of artists’ works

First show in its new West End digs, and James Gallery has come up with a winner — this time pairing a longtime gallery favorite, painter Chuck Olson, with nationally recognized sculptor John Van Alstine.

“Their works are very compatible,” says gallery owner James Frederick. “The two of them just seem to be of the same mind.”

Evidently both artists, who happen to be relatively new friends, agree.

The two first met in June of last year when Olson, a professor of art at Saint Francis College in Loretto, Pa., took his family on vacation to the Adirondack Mountains in New York. That’s where, in a small bookstore, Olson happened upon a book about Van Alstine’s work.

“I’m looking through this book, and I’m saying to myself that, if I had the wherewithal, this is the kind of sculpture that I would like to make,” Olson recalls.

When Olson turned to the artist’s resume in the back of the book, he realized that Van Alstine lived and worked in the very town in which he was standing, Wells, N.Y.

“I went through his resume and found his phone number, so when I went back to the cabin we had rented I called him and asked him ‘Where are you?’ and he said, ‘You can walk to my place from where you are,'” Olson says.

So the two got together and, upon realizing that they shared artistic philosophies, quickly became friends. Shortly thereafter, Olson, who already had a show slated for James Gallery, proposed the idea of a two-person show to Frederick, who was more than happy to oblige.

“It’s kind of rare that I would get two major talents to agree to do a show together,” Frederick says. “It’s a real pleasure.”

Looking around the gallery at the show, which shares its title with the date it opened, “9-19-03,” it’s easy to see why the two artists meet eye to eye. After all, both make wildly abstract works that are firmly grounded in reality.

Van Alstine, whose work viewers may remember from when he last showed his sculpture in Pittsburgh in conjunction with the 2001 International Sculpture Conference, makes lyrical sculptures that are a combination of found metal objects and large, sometimes massive, chunks of stone.

The stone, it turns out, is largely from a quarry just outside of Wells, and Van Alstine often delights in picking through the rubble there to find just the right piece to combine with metal objects that he finds at junk yards as well as those that he casts in bronze from natural forms like vegetables and ram horns.

But regardless of their combinations, Van Alstine says, “In all of these works, what I am trying to do is get the stone up in the air, take it away from its earthbound nature and make it seem like it can dance.”

And “dance” it does, from the large piece of slate that balances as if a ballet dancer poised en pointe in “Lunge” to the cantilevered piece of granite that defies gravity in the piece “Horn Hammer-Rouge.”

Although the objects in Van Alstine’s sculptures are, for the most part, evident, in Olson’s paintings they are more obscure. But, says gallery owner Frederick, “His objects are more recognizable than you might think.”

Take, for example, the painting “Power Landscape: The Approach.” In it, a large flower shape and a repeated form that looks like a teakettle are completely recognizable as such. Olson says that bronze Roman teakettles he has seen in museums in Italy inspired the teakettle form.

Other paintings are similarly based on vessel forms, like those in his “Generator Series.” But in other works, such as two of the largest canvases in the show, “Out/Over/Water I and II,” the forms have become completely abstract, set adrift in the picture plane as if anemones drifting in the deepest waters. “They are hybrids of all kinds of shapes and forms,” Olson says.

Though purely acrylic paint, gesso and modeling paste on canvas, Olson sees his abstract shapes and forms as objects and sees the act of creating them as if ‘building’ them directly on the canvas, not unlike what a sculptor might do.

“I work on the major form as if I am some kind of potter or sculptor building that one object,” Olson says. “Then, after learning something about the object, where it’s going, then I try to place it in some context.”

That “context” may appear to be something akin to water, as in the aforementioned, or landscape as in “Walking Alone II and III.”

Either way, the shapes are grounded in some sort of frame of reference that relates to the natural world.

As for his part, gallery owner Frederick is delighted with this first show in the new space and he says it raises the bar on the kinds of exhibitions that he would like to showcase in his gallery in the future.

“We hope that we can continue to do shows at this level,” Frederick says. “That is our quest, to show challenging work to the Pittsburgh audience that they normally wouldn’t see here.”

From the looks of it, they’re off to a good start.

Additional Information:

Details

‘9-19-03’: New works by Chuck Olson and John Van Alstine

When: Through Nov. 1. Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays.

Where: James Gallery, 413 South Main St., West End.

Details: (412) 922-9800.


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