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FEBRUARY 1, 1997

by Nancy Grimes, ART IN AMERICA

John Alexander, a Texan, first gained prominence as a regionalist specializing in lush, painterly depictions of swamp and cartoonish paintings of humans and animals that satirized the conflict between civilization and the wild. His new landscapes, painted over the last two years, look back at the bayou but also study the woods and waters around eastern Long Island, his current home.

Because Alexander worked for so many years in East Texas, it is not surprising that he has developed an idiosyncratic art that largely ignores the proscriptions of the New York avant-garde. A penetrating observer of nature and of past art, Alexander derives his imagery from direct experience but constructs his clearly articulated spaces in the studio. He recognizes that the transformation of two dimensions into the illusion of three can only be achieved through sophisticated formal manipulations (not by copying what one sees). Therein lies his debt to premodernist painting. However, his humid, congested swamps, seas and gardens share Abstract Expressionism’s desire to preserve the integrity of the mark.

A typical Alexander landscape consists of a soupy, or atmospheric, middle distance screened by thickets of marks—calligraphic jungles that bar or impede entry into an exotic, otherworldly nature. In Amagansett Landscape, a bright patch of blue water flickers through a tangle of deftly brushed trees and tiger lilies.

Deliverance shows a similar scene in winter. Stands of dark tree trunks, whose branches and twigs bristle like barbed wire, prevent passage into a vaporous, eerily luminous clearing. In Deliverance, an essentially pessimistic painting, Alexander’s romanticism and moralism come together. The mingling of air, light and water at the painting’s center holds out a promise of transcendence, but an ominously dark, claustrophobic nature keeps it out of reach.

Alexander sweeps back his signature curtain of vegetation in a group of wintry wavescapes that sets the viewer adrift on a bleak, choppy sea. The water’s patterns of shadow and reflection map out a chilly, inhospitable space, its surface boiling and churning as if disturbed by a force below. These paintings, although a departure for Alexander, still portray a hostile nature, without island or anchor, that looks both primordial and apocalyptic.

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