John Alexander spirits us from the ridiculous
to the sublime
by Michael Granberry
At 69, John Alexander has lived an extraordinary life. He sails the Caribbean with rocker Jimmy Buffett and counts among his other pals such Saturday Night Live luminaries as Lorne Michaels and Dan Aykroyd, his partner in a prosperous venture that serves vodka in skull-shaped drinking vessels.
He spends his summers on Amagansett, Long Island, but for 35 years has occupied a SoHo loft in New York City, where he long ago established a reputation as a mesmerizing artist, one with a social conscience.
“This for me was just a magnificent opportunity,” Alexander said last week, walking around the Meadows Museum at Southern Methodist University, where his powerful new show runs through June 28.
It’s familiar terrain for Alexander, who obtained his graduate degree from Meadows School of the Arts in 1970.
He remembers working tirelessly in the studios of the Owen Arts Center, where until 2001 the Meadows Museum was housed.
“I spent all my time in the studio,” he said. “That was my home. I brought in Chinese food and stayed there most nights until they closed the building.”
He also reveled in the fact that he could stand within inches of some of the finest paintings in the world.
“You might say,” he said, “that I had all these masterpieces in my living room.”
He benefited from a trio of extraordinary mentors — painters Dan Wingren, Jerry Bywaters and Roger Winter, whom he calls brilliant men.
And the paintings? Those that moved him the most were created by the Spanish romantic painter Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes.
“For me, there was always a message in Goya,” Alexander said. “The fact that Goya painted war and pestilence and suffering and witches and witchcraft and gorgeous landscapes …. That concert with the human condition, the human spirit, that’s what attracted him to me more than any other artist.”
He marvels at Goya’s The Third of May 1808, which commemorates Spanish resistance to Napoleon’s armies during the occupation of 1808 in the Peninsular War, and how it differs so dramatically from Goya’s portrait of the Duchess of Alba, which Alexander calls sumptuous.
His ability to paint “vivid extremes always made his work attractive to me. I also love the edginess of his work.”
Some might say that Alexander’s work carries the same edginess. He has long lamented the vicious effects of man on Earth, especially the coastal regions of southeast Texas, where he grew up, near Beaumont.
“My most obvious concern,” he said, “is that every day of my life, our natural habitat gets smaller. It never gets bigger. We’re losing land rapidly, all over the globe. We’re losing species rapidly, and it’s sad.”
So, it’s not unusual to see in Alexander’s Meadows show, “Human/Nature. The Ridiculous and Sublime,” endangered sea pelicans or owls that appear to stare through you and beyond or men hanging precariously on to a sinking vessel, which the artist dubs “ship of fools” (its exact title is Sailing on the Edge).
“It’s my grand vision of whoever’s leading us today as being in that boat and it’s about to go under.”
Shelley DeMaria, a curatorial assistant at the Meadows who helped put the show together, said it consists of 35 works composed during the last decade that underscore the meaning of the title, from the ridiculous to the sublime.
“The title is meant to show that combination but also to show the combination of nature and these characters that John creates,” DeMaria said. “They’re all actually intertwined in some way, and so, it’s not just that we’re mixing them for the sake of mixing them. You look at them all together, and you do see the ridiculous and sublime, side by side, and sometimes, also on the same canvas.”