“When you’re seduced by a place and completely focused on it, that’s as good as it gets,” says Peter Alexander, gesturing toward a half dozen paintings in progress that are propped against the side of a couch in his luxury bi-level bungalow suite at the Fairmont Miramar Hotel in Santa Monica. Alexander is a Los Angeles-based artist who first came to prominence as the creator of spare, elegant resin sculptures in the ‘60s, one of the so-called Light and Space artists. In the ‘70s, he continued to shock the generally unshockable world of cutting-edge art with his pictures of sunsets--on velvet.
Today it’s the surface of water, specifically his sensual new images of the swimming pool at the Miramar, that fascinates him. This past fall he holed up for a six-week residence of intensive painting in one of the Miramar’s $700-$850 per night bungalows, hideaways since the 1920s for the rich and glamorous. His only obligation was to look around him and paint whatever he felt like--all at no expense to himself, except for an agreed-upon 50% of room service costs.
Sound like a good deal? Alexander, a reluctant sports fan, brainstormed the idea last year after a Lakers game at Staples Center that he attended with Santa Monica gallery dealer Craig Krull and Matt DiNapoli, whose investment group owns the hotel.
Alexander had recently finished a five-week stint in Laguna art dealer Peter Blake’s studio, where he was competing in the Laguna Plein Air Painters Association’s annual contest. Though he didn’t win, he was exhilarated by working at the shore without the distractions of telephone, business, social life--even family, except on weekends. So why not, he proposed to DiNapoli, a similar stint at the Miramar?
A longtime Santa Monica resident, Alexander has devoted much of his artistic energy to capturing the particular qualities of sparkling light, the lush vegetation and the nocturnal enchantments of the coastal city, as well as its warm, slightly decadent, somehow innocent sensuality. The Miramar, with its rich cultural history, looked like a perfect base of operations.
“He was excited, we were excited,” recalls DiNapoli, who was familiar with Alexander’s work from a previous hotel installation in Santa Fe. For the hotel, DiNapoli adds, “it was a way to bring together our admiration and support for art in Santa Monica.” Once installed in his luxury digs, Alexander went to work. He’s not a plein-air painter by definition--one who sits outdoors with an easel, and works directly from the land- or cityscape. Instead he uses a camera to record impressions and details from which he then works indoors. Until recently it was a 35-millimeter camera or a Polaroid.
For the Miramar project he used a Sony digital video camera. “With the video camera I compose less and shoot more for information,” he explains. That is to say, isolating images shot with a video camera allows the artist to capture details he might have otherwised overlooked. “With stop-frame images you see all this stuff that you didn’t see before, because of your built-in sense of framing.”
From these images the artist composes his drawings and paintings--pastels and acrylics on black paper and acrylics on gesso-treated panels. Heaps of these images are laid out on table- and counter-tops to dry or are pinned on walls--a maelstrom of work and energy. In addition to the pool paintings, there are nighttime views of the pier and the fun fair, and renderings of palm trees and flora in the hotel gardens, glowing with sunlight or the gleam of artificial illumination after dark.
Still, it was sunlight on water that seemed to fascinate him most, perhaps because it presented him with an entirely new challenge. Shooting down into the pool from the eighth floor with his video camera, he captured the slightly unreal blue of the pool--not only the constantly shifting, glittering surface of the water, but also its depth.
To re-create the image in acrylic paint, he had been working on wood panels made white and smooth with gesso, applying color with sponges loaded with water. “The method worked. I was astounded. You really do want to fall into that water,” says the artist. The loose, translucent surfaces of the resulting pictures shimmer with the inviting aqua glow of a swimming pool. To many of these scenes he has temporarily attached a green painted image of a palm frond to help anchor the otherwise disoriented eye. “I keep wanting not to have the leaves,” the artist continues, peeling one off and trying it in another place, standing back to judge the effect. “ ‘I want to let the water tell the story. But they do give you that tweak of reality.”
A part of the deal with the hotel included a onetime show in the hotel with a reception today that is open to the public. Following their exhibition at the Miramar, the pictures await installation at the Craig Krull Gallery, where they will be on display from May 24 through June 29, with a gallery reception from 4 to 6 p.m. on June 1. The exhibition should make for an exhilarating glimpse at an artist’s special take on the world around him.
Peter Clothier is the author, most recently, of ‘While I am Not Afraid: Secrets of a Man’s Heart.’