SMU’s Meadows Museum marks its 50th anniversary this year. As part of the celebrations, it’s honoring artist John Alexander, one of SMU’s most significant graduates, with a show called Human/nature. The Ridiculous and Sublime. KERAs Joan Davidow says the title’s accurate — from Alexander’s student years to his latest decade of paintings and drawings.
The guy can draw. The guy can paint. John Alexander’s works feature the strangest characters: astonished apes, dressed skeletons, hawking ducks, a pig-faced man and a large-beaked buxom woman. The animal-people world he creates explodes off the wall. Every painting tells a story.
In his two years in the early ’70s as a student in SMU’s new graduate department, Alexander worked at the Meadows Museum. He did odd jobs and helped then-director Bill Jordan hang the art. The museum’s proximity to his classes meant Alexander walked through the Meadows daily — and contemplated Spanish master Francisco Goya’s haunting figures with their peering eyes. Director Jordan witnessed how Alexander “came to SMU with a natural gift for handling paint. He had it from the start.”
Goya’s influence looms large in the oversized painting called Monkey Tree. It depicts a community of apes all staring hauntingly at the viewer. Their long tails accentuate the lyrical limbs of the tree. It’s as though the monkeys called a meeting: They’re judging us. And seem to find us wanting.
We see Goya’s impact again in one intimate, charcoal-and-pastel drawing called Fish Head (left). It has a skull-capped priest who unexpectedly bears the huge, slimy face of an angry fish.
Fellow painting student Sam Gummelt says, “Alexander was always prolific. He was wild. Unique.” He painted constantly. Gummelt says, “As a workaholic with big ambitions, he was a legend even then.” Larry Scholder, who spent over 40 years as an SMU art professor, says of Alexander, “You knew he was going to be successful, one of only two or three students who would really make it.” Even in graduate school, John Alexander had a well-respected Houston gallery selling his paintings as fast as he could paint them. These were the kind of seaside Texas landscapes he knew well while growing up along the Gulf Coast.
In the late ’70s, the adventurous Alexander moved to New York. His landscapes from this new domain took on images of wide-eyed sea birds and frightened forest animals. In the large, splashy painting called The Boating Party, a boatload of masked and beak-faced corporate types hover together over frightening waves and an angry sea. It’s Mother Nature taking revenge on those who ignore our impact on the environment.
Today, John Alexander’s paintings appear in permanent collections of leading museums from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art to Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art. His work stands as an anomaly in the midst of much of today’s abstract art. This Meadows exhibition shows how the talented, Texas-grown, SMU-trained artist has stayed true to his narrative paintings, challenging us to address our politically charged and decaying natural environment.
The exhibition, Human/nature. The Ridiculous and Sublime runs at the Meadows Museum through June 28.