John Alexander: 35 Years of Works on Paper
by Edmund P. Pillsbury, Ph.D.
While John Alexander’s achievement as a painter continues to win accolades, his prowess as a consummate draftsmen has only recently emerged. This latent recognition should come as no surprise. Invariably, painters resort to paper to record an impression, producing works that make up in spontaneity what by intention they lack in finish.
John Alexander is no exception. His studies are rooted in experience and elaborately developed in charcoal, pastel, pen and watercolor on richly textured, hand-made paper. Their refinement and sophistication are without peer. The only valid comparison lies in the work of British Romantic Joseph Mallord William Turner, whose verisimilitude and obsession with natural observation extolled in the writings of John Ruskin foreshadow the virtues of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of which John Alexander is a worthy heir. A more distant echo can be found in the example of Albrecht Durer whose landscape impressions and plant studies have always been centuries ahead of their time.
Alexander defies all conventional labels. He lacks the cynicism of Pop Art, the programmatic imperative of non-figurative painting, or the pure emotionalism of Neo-expressionism. Born at the end of the Second World War in Beaumont, Texas, to a father who was a retired oil engineer and a mother three and one-half decades his junior, he remembers the countless hours spent in the local Baptist church as a choirboy, from whose fundamentalism he rebelled at an early age. He also bears vivid memories of expeditions with his father in which he discovered the exotic flora and fauna of the swampy marshlands of the bayou and the Gulf Coast.
Alexander remained in southeast Texas for high school and college before entering graduate school in Dallas’ Southern Methodist University in 1969, where he stubbornly adhered to the traditional painting in defiance of the predominant interest in minimalism and conceptual art among his fellow students. Upon graduation, John moved to Houston, established a studio and became a member of the art faculty of the University of Houston. His work from this period reflected his growing awareness of racial and social hypocrisies vested in many institutions of authority, particularly big business and government. Not surprisingly, he steered his art away from nature, except as a metaphor of some human foible, and more in the direction of highly-satirical narratives, a form of portraiture that tended to debunk rather than idealize its subjects.
Then, in the late seventies, fueled as much by ambition as by rebellion, Alexander forsook Texas for New York, first Soho and later the idyllic hamlet of Amagansett on the south shore of Long Island where he settled in an eighteenth-century farmhouse on three acres of land by the sea and joined the local brigade of firefighters. In this latter refuge, so reminiscent of his rural bayou roots, Alexander rekindled his love of nature and began creating his own version of Monet’s Giverny, complete in this case with a pond surrounded by rich vegetation and flowering plants. Concurrently, the subject of his work evolved from political and social satire to issues having to do with nature as a metaphor for good and evil, life and death, decay and destruction. While developing in this direction he never ceased to seek new means to manipulate his medium to capture the ebb and flow of plant and animal life. In a word, he became a great landscape and still-life artist whose aptitude for realism, particularly evident in his masterful nature studies, has drawn justifiable comparisons with the naturalism of Van Dyck, Rubens, and even Durer.
What John Alexander shares with all his elders is an uncanny ability to infuse a subject with life through the deft touch of the hand. In place of irony, there abounds an unbridled love of natural beauty, the toolbox of a true humanist. Whether he endeavors to convey the excitement of a glance, the significance of a gesture, the charm of a light reflection, or the atmospheric quality of a moment in time, he does so with conviction and mastery. Nowhere is there pedantry, only an abiding faith in life and a confidence of his powers to render nature in all its glory and splendor.
Alexander’s precocious talent as a draghtsman already manifests itself in Alabama Graveyard of 1968, one of the earliest works on paper in the exhibition. With a few strokes of the brush and employing a limited range of grays, browns, and deep blues, his water colors create a memento mori of haunting beauty-storm clouds serving as metaphors for the tombstones captured in the evening light. Only in his more recent studies from nature do we find the artist so intently involved with the recording of the mystery of a place at a given moment in time.
The works on paper extending from the mid-seventies to the late eighties mirror his highly expressionist allegories in paint. There is a Bosch-like preponderance of images and symbols: a bravura handling of media reminiscent of the early Jackson Pollock or Willem de Kooning, two of the artist’s heroes. Pen and charcoal run rampant over the surface; fiery strokes of pastel infuse emotion. The layered effect asserts the artist”s personality: the result is “action” drawing.
On the other hand, with the animal, fish, and flower portraits that have occupied Alexander for the past decade, he has sublimated his polemical story-telling in favor of a more lyrical evocation of the natural environment. Animals move and breathe as if they were playing a role in a morality play. Blossoms preen and pirouette to reveal the fugitive beauty of their colors and shapes. Reverence emanates from every stroke of the pen or brush: time comes to a halt. The drawings exemplify the French definition for still life, nature morte, as if life and death are inseparable qualities in an artist”s quest for universality.
Anchored in the natural world, but endowed with the utopian dreams of a Romantic poet, John Alexander’s art stands poised to return painting to the heroic level it achieved in the immediate post-war era. In his words, he wants his art “to be highly personal and very much about what my experiences in the world have been, not in an illustrative way, but in a real emotional way that is universal.”