A blur of Western landscape, a taste of awful violence and a sense of rushing flight are joined in John Alexander's paintings, which go on view today at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. They make the viewer feel that he is flying over Texas at, say, four feet above the ground.
He whooshes over Texas hills, over Texas swamps and gardens and through Texas nightmares, too.
Alexander's colors are nature's -- autumn browns and tans, the lush greens of springs -- and yet these paintings do not comfort. Instead, the observer sees mental rocks turn over. Out crawl long black serpents, pink snake-necked flamingos and memories of pain. Something creepy is going on.
Their parentage is mixed. Part landscape, part abstraction, part personal cartoon, they are, above all, active. They blend the sort of scenery we see in Western movies with the kind of violent brushwork found in the abstract art of the '50s.
Alexander's paintings look like no one else's. While many of his colleagues were stripping down their pictures, discarding inessentials and aiming for the minimal, Alexander was tossing in his childhood, his orange cat, his marriage, his politics, his dreams. He is 34 years old, born and bred in Beaumont, Tex. "If you don't understand the complexity and density of your own craziness," he says, "how can you deal with the possibilities of the painted surface?"
While many modern painters begin with the real, then simplify and pare away until they reach abstraction, Alexander works the other way around. He begins with thoughts, doodles, fantasies and scrawls, a play that stars his cat, a bird from his wife's garden, a triangle, a flow -- and then welds these things together by planting them in a colored landscape space.
For example, in "Stars and Snakes Forever," the setting is a garden in mid-summer. The leaves are thick and thickly green; the blooms are full and red. A flag flies in the corner. Its curving stripes are echoed by as many crawling snakes. The painting he calls "Joe" is a sunlit riverscape. Light dances on the moving surface of the water. Joe's corpse is underwater, underneath the glinting light, below the moving shadows and reflections of the drifting clouds. These pictures aren't pure landscapes, nor are they abstractions.
Texas is a wealthy state with a thriving art scene, and young John Alexander, who gets perhaps $8,000 for a good-sized oil, is as original a painter as that state has yet produced. Despite the corpses and spiders, the crosses and the skeletons of monkeys that populate his paintings, they star the land.
"The 19th-century landscape painters thought themselves observers, romantically detached, apart from what they saw," he says. "They were here, nature was there. They looked at her. I'm different. I'm embedded in nature. I'm inside looking out."
When he speaks of his painting, Alexander speaks of Houston cops, of the way his ears stuck out when he was a country kid, of his pet pigs and his dogs and the small animals he killed. The terrors and nostalgia he finds in his mind are planted -- and growing -- in the landscape of his art.
Though his repertory of gestures seems a little thin, though he leans a bit too much on a single sort of mark -- a curving two-foot brushstroke -- Alexander seems to have huge promise. A man in love with painting, he will not squeeze it, cramp it, drain it of its juice. He appears intent on filling in instead.
Jane Livingston, the Corcoran curator who organized his show, writes that Alexander "is rejecting the position which takes other art as subject. Rather, he is taking on that most difficult of esthetic tasks -- the act of using authentic emotional sensation as the impetus for visual expression."
The Alexander exhibition, one in a series called "Modern Painters at the Corcoran," is supported by a grant from the SCM Corp. Accompanied by an illustrated catalog, it will remain on view here through May 4.