Born in Paris and based in New York, Michel Alexis made his first real splash in the art world with work that drew inspiration from another artist with similar ties to France and the U.S.: the poet and tastemaker Gertrude Stein. In 1995, Alexis made his solo New York debut with a suite of paintings all based on Stein’s writings, showing the world for the first time the full range of his versatile style of abstract painting—swathes of muted, mottled, and saturated tones, collaged elements, biomorphic forms, crusty impasto, figurative passages, and scrawled phrases and dates. “Michel Alexis ... clearly has talent to spare,” The New York Times wrote. “His problem is figuring out what to do with it.”
Some two decades later, Alexis has come into his own, harnessing his ambitious fervor for abstraction with a rigorous-yet-improvisational method. To craft his large mixed-media paintings, many of which are featured in a new exhibition at Santa Monica’s Ruth Bachofner Gallery, Alexis begins by painting each canvas a solid, neutral tone. In a measured, additive process, the artist then slowly builds his compositions layer by layer, with an exquisite, almost musical attention to balance and harmony. Mixed in with the delicately tonal elements, impastoed passages, and calligraphic markings are handmade paper squares and rectangles adhered to the canvas—even further complicating the texture of the surfaces. Overall, the effect is one of satisfying tensions, the subtly gorgeous canvases suggesting a mysterious symbolism just out of reach.
It’s a testament to the singular poetry of Alexis’s art-making that his work has drawn (not-inaccurate) comparisons to a range of visionary painters: some see notes of Cy Twombly’s scribbles, while others place his flattened abstract-figuration in the vein of Richard Diebenkorn. Alexis also cites Art Brut as an influence, but at its core, the artist’s work is purely personal. “The basic structure of my paintings is derived from a childhood ritual,” he says. “Alone, lying down, I would stare for a long time at my bedroom ceiling, a blank square ornamented by an intricate frieze. There, I would effortlessly reconcile the minimal and Baroque elements of the decor and combine them into imaginary, enigmatic shapes, suspended between the lure of the void and the exuberant profusion of life.”
“Michel Alexis: New Work” is on view at Ruth Bachofner Gallery, Santa Monica, May 3rd–June 7th, 2014.