ART REVIEWS : John Alexander's Masterfully Frightful World

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In "Burden of Dreams," Les Blank's documentary on German filmmaker Werner Herzog's experiences in the South American jungle, Herzog delivers an inspired rant on the malevolence of nature. "This nauseating growth," he mutters darkly flinging his arm towards the jungle surrounding him, "relentlessly spreading, choking, suffocating--it's a nightmare" he concludes in horror.

Herzog's diatribe comes to mind while perusing an exhibition of paintings by John Alexander at the Jan Turner Gallery in Hollywood. Like Herzog, Alexander--a Texas-born artist who's spent the last 12 years in New York--takes a dark view of nature. In this series of savage landscapes (several of which were painted from photographs the artist took in the South American jungle) we find ourselves in a fetid, sweating miasma of jabbing palm fronds, hysterically colorful explosions of bloom and unbearably heavy atmosphere--you almost expect beads of moisture to form on the surfaces of Alexander's paintings. Technically, these are masterfully executed, intensely physical works, and several of them nearly dissolve into pure abstraction--the ghost of Jackson Pollock hovers over these canvases.

If Alexander's feelings about nature are bleak, his opinion of the beasts who populate it are even more corrosive. A satirical portraitist in the tradition of Goya, Alexander also does nasty genre scenes that poke fun at our feeble attempts to pass ourselves off as civilized creatures. In Alexander's world man is a predatory, lascivious creature, too cowardly to reveal his true nature; to underscore that point the artist paints masks on most of his subjects, many of whom are quivering with terror or shock.

Alexander's portraits are less effective than his landscapes because the targets of his scorn seem too easy and obvious (the wealthy and the church come in for the heaviest lambasting). Moreover, the compassion for the ignorant that made Goya's work so profoundly moving is missing in Alexander's paintings. There's a distasteful cruelty to several of these portraits--they seem lit by a blaze of contempt, paranoia and cynicism.

Curiously, Alexander saves his most tender feelings for his portraits of birds. In "Blackbird Looking at the Light," we see a wistful animal who appears to be crying, while "Night Heron" depicts an intelligent looking bird contemplating some unfathomable complexity of the pond he lives in. Alexander invests these simple pictures with an emotional depth that's quite beautiful.

In a concurrent show of drawings and graphic work at the Earl McGrath Gallery, Alexander gets considerably tougher and more vulgar with his humor. With this work, you can't lose yourself in all that lush paint, nor does the artist veil his thoughts in ambiguity. "True Love" depicts a pair of copulating monkeys, while "Aging Rock Star" is a stoned-looking vulture. We also see a priest in garters and fishnet hose, another priest spewing green bile, and Picasso in a dress. Much of this work seems better suited to an underground comic than to a gallery--the humor is simply too broad--and as with his large paintings, the best work here is also the simplest. An inexplicably mysterious still life study of a fright mask resonates with a quiet power that outshines the rowdy work that surrounds it.

The Jan Turner Gallery: 8000 Melrose Ave., Hollywood; to March 16; (213)-658-6084. Closed Sundays and Mondays. The Earl McGrath Gallery: 454 N. Robertson Blvd., Hollywood; to March 16; (213) 652-9850. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Rosenquist Exhibit: "I learned a lot of painting tricks painting outside," says James Rosenquist, a seminal figure in the Pop movement who earned his artists stripes painting billboards on Times Square in the '50s. It was there that he learned to control very large surfaces and spent long hours studying the insidiously seductive world of advertising imagery.

The subject of an exhibition opening today at the BlumHelman Gallery in Santa Monica, Rosenquist went on to legitimize the massive scale and slick visuals of outdoor advertising by transforming them into a form of social critique; in this, he helped paved the way for the Appropriation artists of the '80s. Originally known for the mammoth size of his work (one of his best known paintings from 1965, "F-III" is 86 feet long), Rosenquist is a master at manipulating banal imagery to the point that it takes on an edge of Surrealism. However, the thing that really jumps out at you about his art is how distinctly American it is. Approaching painting as a form of spectacle, he infuses his pictures with an unabashed love of excess that's an intrinsic part of our national character. His art has all the subtlety of a speech delivered through a bullhorn.

Rosenquist's work has always been rooted in humanitarian values, and as conditions on planet Earth have become more dire his pictures have grown more extreme. Whereas early work seemed based on photographic sources (the paintings had the look of photos blown up to the point of blurring), these new efforts seem like fanciful and futuristic musings of the mind.

Rosenquist brings an extremely warm and tender touch to his work, but there's something unsettling about the cloying lusciousness of his imagery--it's almost too rich for the blood. One must travel back to Rousseau to find pinks and greens as violently lush as the tones that dominate these canvases--they're nauseatingly overripe. Rosenquist's overwrought palette is initially startling, but ultimately is an effective ploy, lending an air of urgency to the cautionary philosophy at the heart of his work.

BlumHelman, 916 Colorado Ave., Santa Monica, (213)-451-0955, to March 23. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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