Two of the most compelling talents ever to grace the L.A. scene appear side by side in exhibition. There are surprises in Peter Alexander's new work, but at least we have known all along that he is an artist.

Nicholas Wilder is another case. He's remembered hereabouts as a leading dealer in art who decamped for New York after establishing a decade-long record of presenting innovative artists from John McLaughlin to Robert Graham.

The prodigal returns as--of all things--a painter.

Wilder's middle-aged debut consists of 21 canvases, large and small. They are bilaterally symmetrical, hard-edge abstractions rendered in thickly troweled pigments whose solid rectangles of color range from dominant, sonorously dark grays, blues and greens to astringent blasts of hot red or yellow that seem to rise like square planets.

The work may have found inspiration in McLaughlin's trenchant grammar but it has little in common with its rational distance. Wilder's sensibility is that of a fervent anchorite monk determined to achieve these acts of devotion despite anything that might get in the way, be it impatience, intelligence or ineptitude.

He turns everything to advantage. Dedication is clarified in hinged triptychs like "Pardini Breeze," where muslin is bunched and stapled behind wing doors. The ecstatic votary knows that passion has nothing to do with neatness. It has to do with an intense grip that now evokes the Renaissance in "A Duke for Urbino," then flakes right off to the East Village with a canvas horizontally suspended from the ceiling on chains. Like any other beginner, Wilder gets things wildly wrong. He is plagued by shapes that don't tuck back, colors that torque around unexpectedly like chorus dancers who won't stay in formation.

He just lets it all happen. It comes out fine, because these paintings are about the mystical triumph of reverent fervor over inertia and distraction. They are remarkable pictures. Wilder wouldn't surprise us if he went on to forge a career as a distinctive loner like Alfred Jensen. After the intensity of this effort, Wilder wouldn't surprise us if he never painted again.

Peter Alexander's small tandem showing presents seven blue monochrome jungle landscapes based on dreams recalling a trip he took to India. In their way these pictures are as densely layered as Wilder's, although at a glance they seem rather straightforward renderings of steamy, moonlit jungles.

They evoke lovers of exotic climes, from Gauguin and Mallarme to Winslow Homer and Indiana Jones. They throb with an attraction to the unknown, evoke the sound of boat paddles on the water and bird calls in the underbrush.

Not uncommonly, Alexander's romanticism is purposefully involved with the lethal and the decadent. These works speak of the coming morning and have a fresher, more life-affirming attraction to venture and risk. Probably that's because the images themselves are so classical. Like great Chinese landscapes, they focus on a few graphic details that flesh out the meaning of amorphous shapes and marks, allowing the pictures to be at once abstract and illustrative.

A large triptych called "Vindaloo" anchors and to some extent explains the rest of the exhibition, which in turn reminds us that Alexander, despite a meandering path, is one of the few artists around whose poetry continues to deepen and spread. (James Corcoran Gallery, 8223 Santa Monica Blvd., to June 28.)

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