Sunday, May 8, 2011

Odd Twists at the Ogden Museum: The Unhappy Pairing of Walter Anderson and John Alexander

One of the most admirable things about the Ogden Museum was always its insightful way of presenting artists in a context that revealed how they were influenced by—and influenced-- their surroundings. Or at least, such was the case until it staged this infelicitous dual exhibition of Walter Anderson and John Alexander. Despite related origins and subject matter, it is hard to imagine two more disparate and less complementary artists. Born in New Orleans in 1903, Walter Inglis Anderson evolved into a hermit in Ocean Springs, MS, spending long stretches of time communing with nature on uninhabited Horn Island in the Gulf of Mexico. A solitary mystic with an artistic vision as singularly ethereal as Van Gogh's, he once walked across China to Tibet in the middle of Mao Zedong's revolution. He had a psychically complex personality that caused him to shun not only the limelight in particular but people in general, yet he had a profound empathy for wild creatures in their native environment, which he painted in prismatic watercolors that seemed to tap into the luminous subliminal patterning of a living and breathing universe, a world of pulsating ambient energies manifest as color and light. All this presents a stark contrast to John Alexander.

Born in Beaumont, Texas, in 1945, John Alexander moved to New York in 1979. Once a neoexpressionist, he now considers himself a naturalist, a painter of decorative conversation pieces like the ones seen here. Instead of wild world mysticism, he gives us something more like an afternoon at an upscale zoo, including an occasional wine glass in his animal compositions, above, or even the cross-dressing monkey below--one of the more extreme examples of animal studies that tend toward the anthropocentric. Even his more conventional renderings of birds and other critters sport quasi-cartoonish expressions, causing them to resemble recent escapees from classical children's stories like Wind in the Willows and, taken in isolation, there is of course nothing wrong with that.

Walter Anderson also did occasional illustrations for fanciful stories, but the difference is that when he tried to be decorative his results were often transcendental if not mystical, whereas Alexander comes across as glib even when he's trying to be serious. Worse, his extroverted canvasses can overwhelm this rather muted selection of Andersons, a group that includes many small watercolors on typewriter paper like the blue crab and thistle, top, or the snake at left, so it's like trying to hear a soft spoken poet above the din of a noisy cocktail party. But Alexander has overreached before. He once scored a retrospective at the Smithsonian only to receive scathing reviews like the one in the Washington Post titled The Overripe Fruit of John Alexander's Labors. And then, when it traveled to Texas, the Houston Press billed it: Alexander the Mediocre.  This too stands in stark contrast to Walter Anderson who, during the centennial of his birth in 2003 was given a justly deserved and long overdue Smithsonian retrospective that received rave reviews from the Washington Post, which compared him to Vincent Van Gogh and John Marin (although the American psychedelic transcendentalist Charles Burchfield might have been the most appropriate analog of all).
Despite all that, a better contextualized Alexander show at the Ogden might have made sense had he been paired with  someone like Dallas artist David Bates, who, while a better, more sensitive and consistent painter, shares a related interest in nature and expressionistic brush strokes. Or even the opportunistic and facile “father of Texas painting,” Julian Onderdonk, famous for his late 19th and early 20th century landscapes overflowing with bluebonnets--the Texas state flower-- like toast overladen with blueberry jam, in an appeal to Lone Star state patriotism that must have been highly effective as a marketing strategy. But Walter Anderson? The Van Gogh of the Gulf? No. There is no way that makes any sense at all. Both Henri Matisse and George Rodrigue, the Blue Dog artist, occasionally painted figures in landscapes, but that doesn't mean they would benefit from being exhibited together. The same, unfortunately, holds true here. ~Bookhardt

Father Mississippi by Walter Anderson, 1963
ONE WORLD, TWO ARTISTS: Works by John Alexander and Walter Anderson, Through July 24, Ogden Museum of Southern Art, 925 Camp St., 539-9600;