The Overripe Fruit of John Alexander's Labors

Detail of "Melon Fields," featured in Alexander's retrospective at the American Art Museum.
Detail of "Melon Fields," featured in Alexander's retrospective at the American Art Museum. (By Gary Mamay -- Collection Of The Artist; Copyright John Alexander)
By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 27, 2007

We've all come across actors too fond of their thespian skills. They rage when their characters are mad, wail when they're supposed to be sad and turn every hint of an accent into a Meryl Streep moment.

The pictures of John Alexander, a 62-year-old Texan long based in New York, overact in just that way. Almost 70 of them are now on view in Alexander's first retrospective, which recently opened at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and will go on to the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston.

Alexander's frantic vision of the Crucifixion, titled "Go Jesus Go," is aflame with lashings of golden paint slapped down over midnight blue. It's less a true nightmare than a bad dream after chili.

Another big picture, titled "Dancing on the Water Lilies of Life," shows two haloed skeletons playing with a huge scythe in a swamp. The painting's imagery of terror is as hackneyed as its frenetic surface. After all these years and so many precedents, scary bones and angstful brushwork have lost their power to compel. Their emotions feel canned.

The surreal dream imagery in more slickly painted canvases such as "Ship of Fools" and "La Casa de los Locos" (an auction-house scene) derives from Bosch and Goya. The originals are so much better, it's hard to see who'd head for the retread.

A handful of pictures in the exhibition almost avoid such overstatement. A huge, lush picture of a watermelon field, covered edge to edge with intact and splintered fruits, for once veils its sense of threat. You don't have to know it was inspired by Baghdad's market bombings to sense that something's wrong. Unfortunately, Alexander had to gild the lily by painting watermelon juice as blood, in dripping crimson instead of puddled pink, and by throwing in one of his trademark spooky black birds.

A painting of a forest of cotton stalks manages, through subtle tricks of sunset light and color, to make its fluffy balls into a subtle reminder of the oppression they once stood for. All subtlety dissolves as we come close: The stalks are wrapped in barbed wire and chains.

Only a single, much smaller picture feels like it condenses its angst into emotion that rings true. It shows a flame-red cardinal sitting on a twig above a pond, against a wall of twilit foliage so dark it's almost black. The picture could almost pass as a normal nature image, until you notice the gorgeous bird's reflection breaking up in the troubled waters below. That disturbance allows for several readings: The reflection implies fracture and decay, maybe, but it also has a comic edge, since it turns the noble beast into a cartoon image of itself, not far at all from Woody Woodpecker. The painting's title, "Lamar Cardinal," reinforces both options. It refers to the athletics mascot of Alexander's alma mater in Beaumont, Tex., where the artist was born and raised. In publicity for Lamar University's sports teams, the bird is drawn with a comic ferocity that Alexander's picture echoes. But the painting's anxious doubling may also evoke a dark moment in 1956, when Alexander was 11: Black freshmen arrived at Lamar, newly compelled to accept them, but were met by angry mobs of whites.

"Lamar Cardinal" may be Alexander at his best, but for all the faults I've pointed out, he's never less than able. I'd place him somewhere up there among the 5,000 or so best artists in the country. Which is more than enough to justify his continuing to paint and collectors' continuing to buy him. What I don't understand is why our national art museum, with such limited exhibition slots and an already iffy reputation for its contemporary programming, would want to highlight such a secondary figure. Alexander has barely had a significant museum show since the early 1980s, when his good friend Jane Livingston first displayed him at the Corcoran, where she was a talented chief curator. Livingston, now working freelance, also organized this show; her boss at the Corcoran, and again for the current survey, was Peter Marzio, now director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston.

By curating Alexander into our national museum, Livingston is billing him as one of our next Gilbert Stuarts, Edward Hoppers, Jackson Pollocks or Jenny Holzers. That's more than his modest talent can bear.

John Alexander: A Retrospective, through March 16 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Eighth and F streets NW. Call 202-633-7970 or visit

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