John Alexander: Grand Illusions
by Jane Livingston
John Alexander is a painter whose ambitions have always been heroic, all encompassing. He has consciously taken a stance in a tradition of paint that at first we identify as expressionist, but that reaches back before revolutionary artists of the early twentieth century, to the narrative and religious painters of the Italian and Spanish Renaissance.
Yet, of course, Alexander differs essentially in spirit and context from early painters. He is not and never will be a patronized artist. His visions have always been democratic and iconoclastic. Alexander believes deeply in the power of painting to communicate what he most passionately cares about, which is often the victimization of people by one another. He thinks about the various depredations of which human nature is capable – greed, bigotry, hypocrisy – and these preoccupations often seem to permeate his canvases whether overtly or atmospherically. But he believes equally as such, in oil painting as it has been for centuries, that most supposedly difficult and sublimely rewarding media of crafts.
It is no accident that a recent obsession of Alexander’s is with the 195 has always felt somewhat out of synch with his own time. One senses that many artists who might have been capable of summoning an achievement of something close to the calibre of Alexander’s have failed to emerge in recent decades out of sheer discouragement in the face of values of the 1970s a 1980s in America. We seem to be living in an era that scoffs at the version of belief in the power of painting to make a profound impact on conscious – and at the spectre of the discipline, indeed the monomania, required to master a venerable and intractably arduous medium. To ignore the overwhelming tendency of the age to resort to mechanically reproducible images, whether by photographic or other mass-generated means, to insist on draughtsmanship as the path to the creation of an oeuvre and a reputation, is to change a difficult path indeed.
It is not as though other painters aren’t applying oil to canvas and work to master of art drawing – obviously many are, a few with some success. What distinguishes Alexander so sharply from so many of his peers is perhaps best identified in two elements of his achievement: first, he has wrestled continuously sought to engage intelligible subjects in his work, even when commanding an often delectably abstract repertory; and second, he has at intervals worked in enormous scale, attempting an accomplishing chefs d’oeuvre in the manner of the public painters of past centuries.
Many artists of the twentieth century, when they wished to work in heroic scale, seem to have preferred the mural form; even Picasso’s “Guernicall” more akin to the wall-bound public monument than to the genre of the vast overscaled easel paintings of Alexander’s. Alexander has chosen, rather to extend the mural-oriented modernist impulse, instead to make vastly some narratively inspired works whose spatial organization and psychological allies them more to Mantegna, Uccello, Titian, Rubens, or Gericault than large-scale paintings of modern times, whether those of the W.P.A. in America or the large-scale paintings of such Europeans as Leger or Dubuffet. Alexander’s several huge triptychs or quadriptychs truly analogous to the works we might think of as their most direct antecedents, the large-scale canvases of the abstract expressionists. When Barnett Newman or Mark Ro decided to make room-sized multi-part canvases, it was not from a desire to communicate dramatic ideas in the only scale in which they could be real rather, it was a question of evoking spiritual and intellectual states, tentatively and yet expansively formulated in larger-than-human scale painting
John Alexander, on the other hand, wants the full intensity and sweep of visualisations to take their place before us, literally to envelope us a overwhelm us and make us experience their emotional velocity in a physic not just an imaginative plane.
In the five triptychs included in his 1989-90 Art Museum of Southeast Texas exhibition, executed between 1977 and 1986, Alexander ranged from a pale which evokes rivers of blood, in Fish or Cut Bait, to the fiery hues of Clockwork Orange and I’ve Been Living In a Hydrogen Bomb, to the green and blues and violets of The Developer’s Dream. In each of these vast works, an elaborate psychic experience is evoked through a series determined largely through colour itself – through colour’s power to evoke imaginative states – but also through a complex web of images and forms which involve us on a level of recognition that is so dense and so automatic as to seem literally unconscious. It is not as though, when standing be these canvases, we are simply reading them, scrutinising and understanding their significance as we would read a map or most other mural-sized painting. Rather, to enter into these overpowering landscape-like spaces strikes as something like giving oneself over to sensations of horror and destruction – perhaps redemption, being mesmerically enchanted, ominously and 8atirica and perhaps comically seduced.
Always, in these heroic triptychs of John Alexander’s, one is made aware sense of extraordinary fervor, not just in terms of the painterly tours force they so patently are, but of the messages their author seems hell to convey. Even when we are not forced literally to follow a narrative, easily discernible morality tale, we sense the presence of an urgency, some traumatic episode or cruelly sardonic anecdote expanded into a vision of cataclysmic destruction and catharsis.
Alexander’s work almost from its earliest beginnings, comprising various of cycles of paintings and drawings, is rarely devoid of elements of sat fragments of narration. The determination he has always shown to master medium to apply oil paint or tempera to canvas or paper with the most ex site attention to lyric drawing and chromatic sophistication, exists always alongside another determination – something like a will to express and to externalize a deeply held anxiety. The tension in the work between an ever-present glimpsing of chaos, and its always highly controlled, carefully worked surfaces, becomes magnified rather than dissipated in the best of over-scaled canvases. Few painters of recent decades have so successful translated the lyric delicacy achievable in small scale works into large human scale polyptychs. Large-scale painting in its contemporary manifestation has tended to take on the character of set designs, cartoons, or murals. John Alexander’s triumph in these works is to have re-engaged a outmoded tradition and extended it, embellished it, in a number of paint whose intensity and whose fully resolved compositional strategies place literally in a class by themselves.