John Alexander: Parallel Worlds
by Gerard Haggerty
For those who relish art the name John Alexander brings to mind buttery oil paint, signature whiplash brushstrokes, and canvases that represent nature as mysterious and never entirely benign. In this exhibition we see a less familiar side of the artist’s work: not the panoramic seascapes, overgrown gardens and teeming swamps he’s painted for more than 3 decades, but a drawn world of great refinement. If his bravura oils have something in common with symphonies or grand opera, these drawings represent a kind of chamber music that captures the clear, distilled essence of a world perceived.
Quite a few pages depict isolated animals: for instance, one pink and gray oxymoron, a jumbo shrimp. Alexander faithfully describes the mottled surface of the creature’s translucent exoskeleton, and the minute spines on its delicate, jointed limbs. Such nuances look exquisitely observed; and so, along with a sense of delight in a wealth of small details, there comes a larger moral-that the infinitely rich world of sight isn’t at odds with the world of the imagination. Quite the contrary: vision invites us to envision our dreams.
Represented in profile-the view that typifies mug shots and medallions because it reveals so much about the subject’s specific identity-the shrimp is immediately recognizable. The model is more or less centered, but far from “dead-center,” for it looks very much alive. Its two long antennae reach past the far right edge of the page, tentatively exploring an area we don’t see: a realm we’re invited to imagine. At one moment, the lone crustacean moves forward, gingerly. Blink, and it starts to backpedal away from danger. Though rendered life-sized, the wee critter appears monumental because of the way it sits atop a faintly drawn horizon. Barely perceptible notes of blue watercolor and a nimbus of pale yellow chalk suggest light passing through water. Like so many of the artist’s drawings, Shrimp represents ambient space, and hints at something more: the aura of life itself.
Alexander’s devotion to surfaces encompasses both nimesis and the actual surface of his page. Though the label “mixed media” categorizes many works in this exhibition, the rubric only hints at the way the pictures were made. Washes of transparent watercolor are applied, partially soaked off, ad reapplied, and scrapped away, and repainted again. Sometimes tea or diluted coffee is part of the mix, and often pastel provides a bright, finishing touch. In order to see many especially fine drawn and inscribed lines, approach these pages with a magnifying glass. The artist often does. The remarkably rich surface that results from all this loving labor reminds us that each work is more than the cunning facsimile of the subject it represents. It is also a thing in its own right: a field where every square centimeter matters and all the parts cohere.
Mystery Lake depicts a copse of trees at the edge of a freshwater pond near the artist’s Amagansett studio. Warm pink suffuses parts of this grove and the glowing, pewter-colored sky that surrounds it. Crystal-shaped bits of white chalk backlight the silhouettes of tall trunks, perhaps evoking the ephemeral moment when snow first starts to form. We witness a whole world: red cypress, water, weather, and the suddenly palpable air. Along with all these convincing aspects of the landscape, we also see the parallel reality of the picture’s facture. The complex network of overlapping limbs and branches is inseparable from the prickly graphic thicket that describes it. Every carbon or graphite line seems to occupy a precise location in space that’s determined by each mark’s weight and density.
Landscapes exist in miniature too. Zero in on the clump of marsh grass in Waiting Out the Storm, and it resembles an island in a squall. And it is just that for the scruffy little kingfisher who perches there in the luminous dark. Inevitably, such images will be compared to the art of one of America’s first great painters, John James Audubon, who at age 39 dedicated himself to what he called his “Great Idea”: depicting every indigenous species of bird in his new-found homeland. Audubon and Alexander excel in the exacting medium of watercolor, and they share a reverent, hands-on love of the wilderness. Both render their models life-sized, a fact that matters when we face the eponymous beast in Alexander’s The Beast, Arnhem Land, Northern Australia. The difference between this ten-foot-long crocodile and a scaled down version of the same reptile is the distinction between a lethal predator and a pet lizard. The huge beast’s size underscores its primordial roots. The large page allows the artist room to represent the precise topography of the crocodile’s hide, room to explore the jade green, lotus-filled water where it prowls. Audubon specialized in domestic dramas, depicting both the male and female of the species engaged in motivated action. He was a naturalist who could never resist the temptation to tell tales. (This trait marked Audubon’s life as well as his art.) Alexander’s birds are closer in spirit to the ornithological watercolors that J. W. M. Turner made to adorn the walls of the Yorkshire home of his patron, Walter Fawkes: works John Ruskin covetously described as “those for which I would give any price, ..if I had it to give.” A catalogue of these rarely seen Turners sits on a worktable in Alexander’s studio. So do stuffed birds, mounted fish, pinned insects and animal bones. Nearby, bookshelves overflow with zoological treatises and volumes of Old Master drawings.
Like Turner, Alexander favors solitary birds that are sometimes cropped at the neck. This device is a timehonored convention in portraiture, and some of his avian faces do have a distinctly human cast. We all know people who resemble Turkey Head. Indeed, when he made a series of mordant, Goyaesque portraits in the 1980s, he painted many such stupid, vainglorious folks. Le coq hardi exudes a martial air, and it reminds us why John Wayne’s valedictory role was a character named “Rooster Cogburn.” Judging from the look of the artist’s Northern Australian Yellow Crested Cockatoo, the plump bird not only talks. It complains. Constantly.
Some of Alexander’s avian images are familiar types; others are archetypes. The golden-eyed creature that’s depicted in Great White Herons Head is simultaneously a particular bird, and a paradigm of forceful grace that inspired a form of kung-fu. (According to legend, the “white crane” style of fighting was born when a master observed a bird spearing a bear to death with its beak.) The heron’s stiletto-shaped bill, the S-curve of its reared-back neck, and a flurry of fine lines around the crest all contribute to the drawing’s kinetic power.
Cock Head demonstrates how careful observation of the visible world may serve as a portal to visionary experience. Viewed at close range, the watercolor is a scrupulously accurate rendition of a rooster’s head, staring leftwards. From a distance, it plausibly transforms into the profile of a horned, blood red demon looking off to the right. Think of a detail out of Bosch-an artist whose drawings Alexander often scrutinizes- and consider what such comparisons imply about the relationship between the past and the present.
For John Alexander, now coexists with then. Parallels to his Sunflowers can be found in the art of Schiele, Mondrian, Braque, and Van Gogh. Skates lineage includes Chardin, Ensor, and most especially Redon. The fantastical creatures represented in Alexander s Seafood Study swim in the same surreal currents that contain Andre Masson’s fish. The luminous pastel entitled Winter Heat, which depicts the instant a forest catches fire, can be seen in the light of a host of 19th century American precedents. All of these examples indicate ways in which art history can be a touchstone and a wellspring for what is timeless in today’s culture. In fhis book The Poetics of Music in Six Lessons, Igor Stravinsky puts it this way: “A real tradition is not the relic of a past irretrievably gone; it is a living force that animates and informs the present.”
Alexander’s very specific images invite us to muse about universal concerns. Nowhere is this more evident than in his penetrating studies of apes. These elegant works seem to capture their models right down to the smallest detail, but in fact this impression is a clever deception. The drawings are not uniformly rendered, and this quality constitutes part of their allure. The artist is highly discriminating in his choice of details: the glint in a simian’s eye, the precise ledge of its eyelid, a few tufts of hair. Based upon such focused bits of data that punctuate the page, our imagination fills in all that we don’t see. In this way, Alexander’s pictures reflect the selective and inherently thoughtful process of human sight. His goal is not nitpicking accuracy; it is optical truth, coupled with psychological insight.
Mother and Child portrays a baby Indonesian monkey suckling at its mother’s breast. A paradigm of maternal love, the scene captures unadulterated feeling without a hint of sentimentality. In this image, where nurturing and vulnerability meet, we again witness the artful interplay between the drawn facts and the drawing’s facture. Our attention shifts back and forth between the monkey’s coat and the hairline marks that define the fur, lines that look like little iron filings organized by a magnet placed beneath the page.
Bush Baby resembles a world taking form. A few carefully chosen, incisive lines define the features of a fuzzy, spherical head. The amber-eyed model could be an infant gorilla, though the creature is actually a hybrid invented by the artist. However it is not the subject’s relationship to its own species that gives us pause for thought, but rather its striking resemblance to our own. This work of art confirms the latest scientific findings from the human genome project. In chromosomal makeup, we humans differ by only 2% from apes. (To put this statistic in perspective: the difference between two strangers standing side by side in a gallery is 1%.)
We ponder the small being who”s nestled back into the center of the page, and judging from his furrowed brows it seems that he ponders us in return. His thoughtful visage recalls the poem “OWEN: SEVEN DAYS,” in which C. K. Williams speculates about just what might be on the mind of his watchful, wide-eyed, newborn grandson:
not “Who are you?”
but more something
Why are you? Out
There? Do you
Bush Baby has something in common with William’s particular verse, as Alexander’s work has much in common with poetry in general. For the sake of intensitying what is present, a great deal is omitted and the subtractions permit us to see vividly what remains. Ultimately, like so many of his drawings, this haunting little picture asks us to meditate on what it means to be human.