Cincinnati

John Alexander

Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati

The 20 large, oil-on-canvas paintings and eight small, colored pastel-on-paper drawings in this retrospective encompass the last eight years of John Alexander’s career. The artist’s recent paintings hover between figuration and abstraction, tense beauty and jarring ugliness, landscape and ritual enactment. Images bursting forth and radiating from the center are held in check by an allover distribution of signs and lines in a shallow, ambiguous space. The mood varies from anxious to frantic, yet a sense of mystery is maintained by an unresolved but carefully controlled tension between opposites. Like Jackson Pollock before the classic drip paintings, Alexander traps primal symbols in dense webs of paint, but his figures bear closer resemblance to creatures from the natural world. The nets that entangle his beasties are made of straight, spiky, painterly sticks, like birds’ nests, instead of the broad serpentine squiggles that fill Pollock’s abysses.

Alexander does not seem constricted by the Modernist pressure to invent his own new formal language, drawing techniques and images freely from the history of art. He paints from personal experience, and it has taught him to be wary. The dangers that lurk in the shadows of his paintings may be pollutants that threaten a beloved landscape or clusters of wealth that exercise power irresponsibly. But they’re always there, always effective, and always operating just beneath the surface.

The earliest painting in the show, Conversations with a Spider, 1980, depicts a swamp near where Alexander lived when he was a graduate student at Southern Methodist University in the late ’60s. It is a lush, painterly landscape, in the tradition of Monet’s water lilies, but there are scary cats and foxes lurking in the bushes, and fish bones (a frequent Alexander motif) providing premonitions of bad things to come. By 1982, three years after he had moved to New York, Alexander was making paintings like The Art King, with more explicit subject matter, more clearly recognizable imagery, more centripetal organization, and a more demonic presence. It was not until 1985 that he also began to produce scenographic paintings recalling Goya’s socialites and Bacon’s popes, such as The Confused Princess Contemplating Her Lost Empire and Le Petit Connoisseur, paintings that satirize particular people and practices. Despite the quirky sense of humor that creeps into everything Alexander does, these works are more bitter, as well as more specific in their references, yet they contain multiple meanings and allegorical implications. They are accessible, memorable, and appealing, but are somehow less haunting than the more abstract recent paintings, many of which were inspired by Alexander’s travels; in Rosie’s Landscape, 1987, for instance, humor and horror collide exquisitely.

Alexander’s greatest gift is for capturing the moment before the fall, when the full extent and even the nature of the dangers to be faced are still unknown. Through an odd combination of provocative symbols, painterly spikes, and dimly remembered monsters, he imagines those moments and exorcises them.

Jayne Merkel