John Alexander’s Early Abstractions Foreshadow a Lifetime of Environmentalism
John Alexander’s Gulf Coast origins have an almost haunting presence across his vast body of work. Even after his relocation to the Northeast in the late 1970s, his paintings have retained what Alexander has suggested is an unconscious resemblance to the scenery of east Texas and western Louisiana: “No matter what I painted, whether I was painting the coast of Maine, it ended up looking like the swamps and landscapes I grew up in.”
The fact that those same swamps and landscapes are being altered by global warming and other sources of human influence is a major occupation of Alexander’s. He often takes as subject matter real species that have been observed in unusual habitats, driven from their former dwellings by rapidly changing environmental factors. Rooted in an unfailing reverence for the power and beauty of nature, Alexander’s paintings expose the violence born from human interaction with natural settings. The reciprocal effect of this process on humans themselves is a corresponding theme in his oeuvre, largely dominated by landscapes but dotted with near-grotesque figural representations of people and animals.
Lauded for his dedication to painting amidst the rise of conceptualism during the early part of his career, Alexander maintains a classical sensibility that has been compared to the Hudson River School. Though in recent years his practice has become grounded in more meticulous, rigorously executed techniques, many of the pieces he made in the 1980s and ’90s are more frenzied, and more in line with the tendencies of his Abstract Expressionist heroes, like Willem de Kooning. Alexander has likened his painting process to that of de Kooning, constantly reconsidering and revising as he works through a piece, rather than moving methodically across the canvas.
Aside from his notorious representations of prominent figures like Donald Trump and Marla Maples, Alexander’s early period anticipates his later preoccupation with the decaying American landscape. In Ascension of Fish into Heaven (1983), he prefigures a rapturous escape for his mistreated subjects, though this escape is marred by an earthly chaos that blocks the light of liberation; the desperate fish are trapped in the tumult, their forms becoming ghostly, even monstrous. The more palpable Real Estate Desires (1991) is a blurred vision of a swampy forest, its ethereal hues eerily distorted in a manner that questions the legitimacy of human perception. In his recent work, Alexander doggedly continues to revisit the brutality of the human relationship to nature, determined to persist until this state of disharmony is resolved.
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