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Plein-Air Painting: Making His Own Rules

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Los Angeles artist Peter Alexander likes to shake things up. Especially himself.

The former Newport Beach resident returned to Orange County for two weeks in July to take a break from his windowless Santa Monica studio and compete in an outdoor painting contest.

Last year he judged the Laguna Beach Plein Air Painting Competition hosted by the Laguna Art Museum and Laguna Plein Air Painters Assn. But this year he decided to enter, even if it wasn’t his usual thing.

Late in his long career, the 62-year-old artist, known for his Minimalist resin sculptures and atmospheric landscapes, still revels in exploring and searching.

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“You’re still an idiot,” he said, looking like he just stepped off the beach in a pale-blue cotton shirt, white linen drawstring pants, turquoise socks and Italian Mary Jane-style shoes.

“That’s why I did this plein-air thing, to set up a situation to open your eyes again in a different way. It was two weeks. And I’d do it again, because it was a lot of fun.”

Alexander didn’t win, but his paintings were displayed with those of other contestants at the Laguna Art Museum. Three of his pieces are part of a new body of work titled “Semi Plein Air Paintings of Laguna.” The series of 14 paintings is on display through Aug. 29 at the Peter Blake Gallery in Laguna Beach.

In the museum, Alexander’s entries stood out “like a diamond among sapphires,” said gallery owner Blake. The titles of his pieces--"Ruby’s,” “Ceanothus” and “Surf and Sand"--will strike a chord with locals who recognize the names of a diner, a narrow residential street and a trendy hotel.

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“Ruby’s” hints of a car’s glowing, yellow headlights between vivid purple trees, a dramatic blue sky and dark clouds. It resembles his 1991 “Los Feliz.” “Surf and Sand” is a white moon reflected in black water. “Ceanothus” is a nocturnal landscape of the coastline.

“He draws you into the painting with his use of light, space and depth. There’s a different sensibility to it,” said Blake, who has been Alexander’s Orange County dealer for seven years.

The new works are painted on gesso-coated wood panels, using thin, watercolor-like acrylics with smooth brushstrokes.

They aren’t traditional plein-air paintings. In fact, said John Cosby, a local painter and founding member of the Laguna Plein Air Painters Assn., the contest name was changed to emphasize that it was an invitational, the better to include Alexander.

“Peter painted nighttime scenes, and that alone set his paintings apart,” Cosby said. “His work is much more interpretive of the landscape. Plein-air painters normally paint as close to realism as possible. And Peter doesn’t. He interprets a scene into a Peterism.”

“I’ve always loved sensuality over intellectuality,” Alexander said. “And the more I began to realize that boundaries were what plein-air was about, the more I began to tweak some things. Mine is a different kind of plein-air painting. It’s a spoof of the plein-air tradition, but it’s not meant to be disparaging. It’s just a different way.”

Alexander has always done things differently. He emerged from the so-called Cool School of ‘60s artists, a group whose works were among those shown last year in the “Made in California” exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Alexander, Billy Al Bengston, Ron Davis, Joe Goode, Craig Kauffman, Ken Price, Ed Ruscha, DeWain Valentine and others took pride in the laid-back California lifestyle and, of course, its glorious beaches.

Alexander’s minimalist resin sculptures, such as “Cloud Box” (1966), were extremely popular. He showed them in Los Angeles, New York and Europe.

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His early success, at age 28, rattled him.

“I was just a baby, and the recognition and success tweaked my head, serious. It was too easy. I knock these things out, and people buy them. And I wondered, ‘What’s going on? There’s something wrong.”’

So Alexander shook things up. He stopped doing sculpture and started doing pastel sunsets.

The switch shocked the art world of the early ‘70s.

“And it was at that point I thought, ‘What’s the stupidest painting anybody could do?’ And I figured it was a sunset. And I figured if you could do a sunset, why not do it on velvet? It’s not rebellious. It was just I felt all the art-world rhetoric hovering around at that time was a crock,” Alexander said.

In the catalog for his retrospective, “In This Light,” at the Orange County Museum of Art in 1999, Alexander’s modus operandi throughout his long career was described by critic Dave Hickey: “His art has always devoted its most profound attention to the soft, glistening, metamorphic edge of things, where solids turn liquid, and liquids dissolve into atmosphere, where sight and touch are indistinguishable, and we can always feel the air as it moves in off the ocean.”

Orange County, and its beaches, is still inspiring for Alexander. “The nostalgia is strong here,” he said. “It started to elicit memories that I hadn’t had in a long time"--the Fun Zone and nocturnal boat trips in San Clemente.

Alexander said he greatly appreciated OCMA’s salute.

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“Since having the retrospective, I feel like I now have the permission to do anything, not just plein-air painting. I never did feel the same kind of freedom with which I did these paintings in Laguna.”

He said the recognition from the show has taken some edge off the pressure to succeed he felt in his early years.

“When I did those sunsets, I got thrashed,” Alexander said. “But that’s how it is. I mean, I could get thrashed for these paintings by critics. You would like to be embraced. We all prefer to be embraced. But sometimes you can’t.

“The best thing about being a dinosaur, about time and density, is that you really start not to care in ways you used to.”

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“Semi Plein Air Paintings of Laguna,” Peter Blake Gallery, 326 N. Coast Highway, Laguna Beach. Daily, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Ends Aug. 29. (949) 376-9994.


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