Los Angeles

Peter Alexander

James Corcoran Gallery

Peter Alexander’s recent paintings on black velvet are virtuosic in the extreme. Lush, subaqueous fields stuck with tinsel, rhinestones, taffeta, and corduroy, they are almost painfully beautiful.

Alexander began making paintings on black velvet about six years ago (take that, Julian Schnabel), but those hard-edge glittering sunsets walked a thin line between the metaphysical idealism of his earlier cast-resin wedges and the vernacular trashiness of their own materials and subject matter. The high-tech transcendentalism of the wedges, their yearning sense of unattainable perfection, was clearly beginning to come down to earth, but those paintings refused to fully surrender the metaphysical to the physical.

In the recent velvets, however, all traces of restraint have disappeared. The unstretched, free-hanging black velvet is painted with slashes of glittery crimson, silver, mint green, and electric blue. The simultaneously light-absorbent and reflective nap of the velvet coupled with the painted and appliquéd elements results in an ambiguous spatial layering. Suspended between surface and distance, these elements suggest floating underwater jungles with an organic vitalism paradoxically rendered in tinsel.

The velvets transform both their materials and their allusions to cliché—Tijuana bargain art, Sunday-painter seascapes—into elegant rapture of the deep. Their cheesy glamor is at once funny and erotic, ordinary and remote. The late-19th-century landscape paintings of Martin Johnson Heade, to which Alexander’s velvets owe more than a passing nod, are instructive: his lush tropical foliage, ominously beautiful passion flowers, and strange, pearlescent hummingbirds, all bathed in a misty, spatially ambiguous light, transformed the naturalistic ambiance of a landscape painting into an abstract field of otherworldly sensuousness. The suggestions of undersea exoticism in Alexander’s velvets, however, are firmly located in a field of sensuousness in the world at hand.

Christopher Knight