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John Alexander, the Mediocre

The MFAH showcases an artist of limited talents

John Alexander is one of those iconic Texans. He's irreverent, opinionated, proud of his Gulf Coast roots and, as evidenced by the work in "John Alexander: A Retrospective" at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, a mediocre painter.

Alexander grew up in Beaumont. He got his BFA from Lamar University and his MFA from SMU. He got a teaching gig at the University of Houston and spent much of the hard-partying '70s here, hanging out with guys like Jim Harithas and James Surls, moving to New York in 1979. But other than misplaced boosterism, I'm not quite sure why Alexander has a full-on retrospective in the prime downstairs space of the Beck Building. The artist's persona seems to be his greatest asset, and he has clearly used it to buoy his limited artistic gifts. There is even a hefty catalog to accompany the exhibition, organized by Alexander's very good friend Jane Livingston. (Coincidentally, MFAH director Peter Marzio was Livingston's boss at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. in 1980, when she organized what is just about Alexander's only other solo museum show.)

The first of the exhibition's galleries are dedicated to Alexander's early work, most of it from the '80s. The best that can be said of most of the work is that it is, um, energetic. Alexander's strategy of massing expressive strokes works well to obscure artistic shortcomings. But while the paintings are filled with choppy, frenetic marks, they feel repetitive, even when the marks are intermingled with rough, supposedly totemic images of rats or birds or cats or figures. Some of the figures from the early '80s works have a certain rough Jean-Michel Basquiat quality to them, their heads surrounded by halos or topped by crowns. The mid-'80s were Basquiat's heyday, and they seem to have been the high point for Alexander's work as well; he had a sold-out show at Marlborough Gallery in New York in 1986. (Today Alexander still lives in NYC, but as one Houston gallerist sagely pointed out, he's not represented by any New York galleries.)

A certain clumsiness of mark and gloppiness of paint are evident in the early work, as well as a bizarre tunnel vision that seems to limit Alexander to centrally oriented compositions. A lot of that work is more than 20 years old, and I hoped things might improve in the other galleries, but things go from mediocre to bad. I walked into the artist's schizophrenic assortment of representational paintings and thought, "Wow, this guy really is a crappy painter."

The figurative works are as all over the place as they are badly painted. In a supposedly biting image of an auction house, rich collectors wear bird masks. The masks look like the ones medieval plague doctors wore, and they are a fixed part of Alexander's shtick. Part of the reason for the masks is that when Alexander does actually paint faces, they're almost always awkwardly cartoonish.

The exhibition shifts from the images of people to images of nature. Alexander spent a lot of time outdoors as a kid and has a well-developed environmental streak — a wonderful thing, but I still wish he could paint. The image of a locomotive in the jungle was supposedly inspired by a trip to the Galápagos Islands. The front of the engine (yet another centralized composition) is subtly inscribed with 666 to show us the evil and destructive influence of man on the environment. Did I mention the artist is a little ham-fisted with his symbolism? Inexplicably, next to this painting is a still life with lobster that looks like hokey restaurant decor.

Alexander's adventures in realism continue in the next gallery. A 2004 painting of Montauk looks like it is from the Bob Ross school of seascape. An image of pine trees looks, as one observer put it, like a "'70s doctor's office painting," and the same could be said for Alexander's painting of five owls perched in the branch of a pine tree. (I wonder what they'd look like in macramé?) Amazingly, these two paintings weren't done in the '70s — they were executed at the inexcusably late dates of 2001 and 2005, respectively. (And no, they are not ironic.)

Meanwhile, a small side gallery showcases Alexander's academic and Audubon-esque drawings of birds, fish and other animals. He's a much better draughtsman than painter. They aren't badly executed; they just aren't particularly interesting.

The final gallery of the retrospective includes recent and heavy-handed political work. Alexander riffs on Hieronymus Bosch in Ship of Fools (2006-2007), a tiny boat laden with masked, greedy corporate types — as indicated by the dollar bills floating around. The panoramic, ambitious and equally disappointing Parade (2006) is an homage to James Ensor's iconic 1888 work, Christ's Entry into Brussels in 1889. It's packed with anthropomorphic pigs, skeletons, bird-masked guys in business suits and others in pointy hats. Sadly, although he might share similar impulses, Alexander is no Bosch, and he's no Ensor.

The best two paintings in the entire retrospective lack Alexander's characteristically lumpy brushwork and bad cartoonish imagery. I sincerely hope they are a harbinger of work to come. One is a small 2005 portrait of Nixon. It's thoughtfully executed and creepy, with a distinct greenish tinge to the flesh. The other is the 2003 Roy, another small portrait, this time of a guy wearing a jacket with "Roy" embroidered on it. The guy is also wearing clown makeup and a rubber nose, but Alexander has managed to paint him with a disturbing and decidedly human intensity. He could be John Wayne Gacy, or he could be a tire store employee dressed up and humiliating himself for his kid's birthday party. Here Alexander has achieved the near impossible: He has made a successful clown painting.

The Alexander retrospective opened at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, where it received a scathing review from Washington Post critic Blake Gopnik. Although it smacked of a certain brand of East Coast snottiness, describing Alexander's Go Jesus Go as "less a true nightmare than a bad dream after chili," Gopnick was right on about the work overall, and really more generous than I am inclined to be. As a Southerner, I would love to champion a politically liberal, iconoclastic Southern artist and say, well, those Yankees just don't get it. But Gopnik gets it, and so does everybody else who looks past Alexander's apparently engaging persona to see his work as what it truly is: mediocre.

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