Free of Expression

John Alexander has led the most charmed of painterly lives. True, he didn't start out that way; he was born in Beaumont, raised among swamp critters and fundamentalists and educated in the sticks (B.A. from Lamar University, M.F.A. from Southern Methodist University). His inspiration to paint probably came as he has claimed, via National Geographic magazine, where as a boy he says he saw a reprint of Bosch's "Garden of Earthly Delights." And it may well be true that, as Rick Brettell writes in his catalog for Alexander's mini-retrospective at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary, by the time the artist quit Dallas in the early '70s, he had "not...seen more than 30 important works of art."

But Alexander did not wander long in the wasteland. By the time he hit 30, Alexander had taken his place in an important Houston-centered community of Texas artists, which included men and women such as James Surls, Bert Long and Melissa Miller. He was recognized as part of this vital "Houston school," a group loosely characterized by art historian Barbara Rose as rejecting "purely formal concerns" in favor of "a humanistic figurative art, emphasizing content, moral concerns, at times even...narrative." He was represented at the city's best galleries, was featured in museum shows and books, even landed a gig teaching studio art at the University of Houston. Yet Alexander was always, in his words, "a driven individual," with an ambition too large for even the nation's fourth-largest metropolis. In interviews, he expressed dissatisfaction with Houston's smallish community of arts cognoscenti and a barely concealed contempt for his peers, men and women he dismisses as too scared to try to make it in New York's big pond. By the end of the '70s, Alexander had made his leap to New York, complete with a Manhattan studio and an Amagansett farmhouse.

His comeuppance never came. Though he described himself as "basically a landscape painter," the landscapes he painted were straight out of hell, exotic South Texas swamps and forests dense with ominous creatures and religious symbols--in a word, expressionist. His timing was impeccable; he had landed in the Big Apple at the exact moment neo-expressionism was white-hot. He was represented by Marlborough, among the toniest and best-connected of New York dealers, and his work was discussed in the same breath as the '80s art stars--Fischl, Salle, Schnabel, Basquiat. He garnered respectful notices, first from Barbara Rose, who knew him from her days at the Fine Arts Museum of Houston, then from no less rigorous a critic than Robert Hughes. Though Alexander was, in some ways, a poster child for the kind of careerism Hughes detested, he was also a classicist who looked to Goya and Monet as models, and anyone who aspires to Goya isn't all bad in Hughes' eyes. Hughes praised Alexander's "spiky, haunted" style and his taste for the "religious grotesque," going so far as to describe one canvas as "Tintorettoesque." Alexander had hit the art world trifecta; he's been collecting the payoff ever since.

The MAC's show consists of 16 or so canvases from this period, roughly 1977 to 1988. It is a rare opportunity to view a part of the ex-pat's oeuvre; though Alexander is still considered a "Texas artist," he's been gone more than 20 years, and back home the work is almost as scarce as, well, a Bosch in Beaumont.

By and large, it holds up well. In canvases like "Fish or Cut Bait," a blood-red Texas homage to Monet's water lilies, and Goyaesque social satires like "The Dinner Party," one can see the awesome scale of Alexander's ambition. Naturally, his reach far exceeded his grasp. Though Brettell praises the education Alexander received at SMU--"supremely craft-based, with a reverence for painterly technique"--it has always seemed to me that Alexander's drafting ability was suspect, particularly when it came to the human figure. Moreover, some of the works, particularly the tangled, dense, neo-Pollock early-'80s canvases, like "The Art King," do feel dated, musty and generally First-Reagan-Administration, the painterly equivalent of a rack of Albert Nipons. But there is something compelling still about even these period relics, an obsessive quality, a moral quality, a quality of looking within and without and being justifiably troubled by what one sees. They are, as Alexander himself has described them, "a form of exorcism," exercises in which the painter works through demons, some personal, some societal, always fascinating.

To his credit, Alexander has always been hard on himself, far harder than the critics have been. He has continued to search, to evolve, to push himself toward an impossibly high standard. This push has resulted in a near disconnect between the bodies of work on display at the MAC and at Pillsbury and Peters Fine Art, which has a companion show of Alexander's recent work. There is a wide and unfortunately unexplained chasm between canvases like "The Death of Importance," with its mysterious masked mourners, pompous cartoon priests and pasty-faced corpse, and Alexander's absolutely realistic, even fussy watercolor studies of flora and fauna at Pillsbury and Peters.

The disjunction is easily explained. Throughout the late '80s and early '90s, Alexander continued to work in two opposite veins. The first was an increasingly realistic series of landscapes, explorations of heaven and hell in the form of flowers and rough seas that recall J.M.W. Turner. The second was an increasingly caustic series parodying social types, portraits of mostly anonymous tycoons and bejeweled society dames hiding behind masks that, in Alexander's own words, "make the wearers look even sillier than they actually are."

Alas, Alexander was no Goya, no latter-day Daumier. By the early '90s the satires had become increasingly shrill and easy, with titles like "Hillbilly Heaven" and "Be Boppin', Pill-Poppin', Clothes Shoppin' Mother and Child." The low point may have been a gilded "American Gothic" of Marla Maples and Donald Trump; within a month of the time it was painted, Marla had abandoned The Donald. Amazingly, Brettell's essay ponders "whether John Alexander is to painting in those years what Tom Wolfe was to the novel...our king of passionate satire." The more apt comparison would be to Wolfe as art and architecture critic; Alexander's late satires were similarly glib and half-baked. By the mid-'90s, Alexander had entirely abandoned this increasingly false direction. "My hope is that this personal inward vision is a lot more interesting than only looking outward at society and chronicling what I see there," he told George Plimpton in a 1996 interview. It was, but only because by then Alexander was no longer seeing below the surface.

The results now line Pillsbury and Peters' galleries. Titled John Alexander: Works on Paper, the show consists of 27 extremely realistic studies of flora and fauna. In an essay, gallery owner Ted Pillsbury describes them as "metaphor[s] for good and evil, life and death, decay and destruction." Some are extremely anthropomorphic; the artist is clearly projecting his own thoughts and feelings through simians and angry weasels. All in all, however, they read as the record of Alexander's globetrotting--the rainforest frogs and Australian gators suggesting a man who no longer has a whole lot to be pissed off about. And it's a damned shame, for as the MAC show reminds us, John Alexander's rage and personal demons fueled some fantastic work.

As Pillsbury's essay puts it, today Alexander "stands at a crossroads." His recent work is technically masterful. Still, one has the nagging suspicion that Alexander has abandoned the subjective distortions and exaggerations of expressionism, in part, because he no longer has anything compelling to express. The old desperation to communicate, to engage, to offer irresistible conundra, seems somehow to have retreated, if not entirely to have vanished. Alexander has proven his skill as a draftsman, has honed his technique and looked to the masters, has embraced the universal--and the results are strangely unsatisfying. I, for one, would gladly trade the tree-hugging world citizen for the raging Texan. Looking at the new work, I find myself oddly nostalgic for what Hughes described as Alexander's "demonic cartooning," for the caricatured types, the primitive scribbling, the abrasiveness, the obsessiveness, the risk-taking that once marked Alexander as a Texas artist of the first rank.

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Christine Biederman

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