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Alexander exhibits showcase journey of

New Old Master

Published 5:30 am CDT, Thursday, May 29, 2008

DOUGLAS BRITT, Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle

As surveys of living artists' careers often do, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston's John Alexander: A Retrospective tilts its narrative toward his later work. The last pieces in the exhibit seem to imply a culmination that seals his New Old Master status.

But it's McClain Gallery's John Alexander: New Paintings and Drawings that closes the deal.

Picking up where the MFAH show leaves off — all but one work, Midnight Feast(2005), are from 2007 or 2008 — the McClain exhibit hints that preparing for the retrospective prompted Alexander to look back on what he liked most about his earlier works and figure out how to incorporate that into the politically charged content of his recent paintings.

The largest and most ambitious of those early works, I've Been Living in a Hydrogen Bomb (1982), kicks off the MFAH show. Measuring 10 feet tall by more than 20 feet wide, its raging virtuosity delivers depth, a dazzling chromatic range and a searing emotional urgency characteristic of many of his 1980s paintings.

Alexander's affinity for the abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning's slashing brushwork and whiplash lines is evident throughout the 1980s sections. Barely discernable imagery gradually gives way to more recognizable figuration, but what independent curator Jane Livingston, who organized the show for the MFAH, describes as a "lacerating, stabbing use of line — sometimes staccato, sometimes sinuous" is always there, even as a recurring cast of characters presents itself.

These iconographic figures include skeletons with halos, masked men, devils, birds, fish, monkeys and cats, often set in a tangle of lines recalling the East Texas swamps that showed up in the Beaumont-born Alexander's work long after he left Houston for New York in 1979.

By the late 1980s, realism had begun to creep into Alexander's work. Landscapes grew more naturalistic and figures, even skeletons, became less linear and sticklike.

My favorite room in the exhibition shows Alexander at a crossroads, straddling past and future techniques and concerns. Three large paintings share the space with small drawings and canvases that feature some of his most realistic draftsmanship up to that point.

In Watching the False Prophet (1986), haloed masked monkeys, cardinals and crows surround a scarecrow hoisted in a crucifix-like position. Its palette blazes and its lines still jab, but with more restraint than in the early-1980s works. Dancing on the Water Lilies of Life (1988), in which two haloed skeletons stand poised with a scythe in a swampy, crow-addled landscape, has a decidedly more naturalistic palette. Honky-Tonk Moon (1989) is downright monochrome. In all three works, Alexander's gesturalism is contained but not yet abandoned, and the surfaces are more sensuous than anywhere else in the show.

Alexander soon banished all remnants of expressionism and increasingly used realism to create allegorical landscapes, symbolic still lifes and social satires. He lampooned the frenzy of art auctions in La Casa de los Locos (1991), lamented the collision of technological progress with the natural world in Glory Bound (1993) and used squabbling grackles as stand-ins for human foibles in Alpha Males (1994).

In 1996 Alexander, who had copied Michelangelo drawings as a student at Lamar University, returned to studying the Old Masters and dedicated himself to increasingly detailed drawings of fish, birds and monkeys alongside purely realistic landscape and seascape paintings.

Political content reentered his pictures none too subtly after Sept. 11, 2001. Corrupt politicians populate small works like Nixon (2005) and Angry Man With Broken Nimbus (2007) and the larger Three Little Pigs (2007). Ship of Fools (2006-2007) is a contemporary take on Hieronymus Bosch's moralizing, 15th-century painting of the same title.

Parade (2006) takes stylistic cues from James Ensor's Christ's Entry Into Brussels in 1889 (1888). Alexander describes its hundreds of figures "descending into this black oily abyss, showered by money, blindly following each other into this dark morass."

One frustrating feature of this engaging retrospective is that it omits all work from

Alexander's Houston years (1972-1979), which, judging from a terrific catalog essay by Alison de Lima Greene, the MFAH's curator of contemporary art and special projects, were crucially important to his development.

If you stop with the MFAH show, you may be struck by the problems any survey has summing up the career of a working artist who has changed styles as many times as Alexander has. The retrospective feels more like a collection of discrete periods in a varied career than a completely satisfying narrative. The whole doesn't quite add up to the considerable sum of its parts, especially if, like me, you find the earlier parts more exciting.

The McClain show is the postscript that ties everything together — the political satire, the allegorical content, the love of landscape, the realism of

the drawings, and a joy and looseness in paint handling not seen since the late 1980s.

The sleazy politicians and tycoons are back, mingling with Alexander's precisely drawn animals in a way that makes

you think of the end of George Orwell's Animal Farm. The menacing palette of 1988's Dancing on the Water Lilies of Life returns in Big Oil and Walking to New Orleans (both 2008), but so do its deliciously rich textures, along with drips and spatters that remind you of Alexander's affinity with action painting.

The angry environmentalism of those paintings is reinforced by pictures such as Lost America (2008) with its pristine forest and a sky worthy of J.M.W. Turner.

Alexander's fire and rage are on full display here, but so is the exuberance of a painter pulling together everything he's learned during the years. The McClain show completes the MFAH retrospective while pointing the way forward.

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