A parade courses, saunters or strolls through
nearly all of Wick Alexander's paintings—not the classic,
Main Street variety of parade with marching bands and baton
twirlers, but a more spontaneous version of self-declaratory
display, a continuous, public exposition of our passions and
pastimes. THIS IS WHO WE ARE, an Alexander painting laughs,
sometimes poignantly, sometimes painfully. Do we approve?
Could we be otherwise?
The spectacle of life in this time and place,
the late 20th century in the U.S./Mexico border region, spreads
across canvas in panoramic splendor and minute detail. Our
eyes move in rhythm to the paintings, bounding from subplot
to subplot, gathering evidence of current society's endearing
ugliness, its earnest viciousness, merciless pride and blatant
absurdity. Alexander celebrates the spectacle, reveling in
its color, its extremity and variety. Even when given every
reason to, he rarely demonizes a subcluture or the larger
public from which it deviates. He exaggerates for effect,
but the effect is one of gentle self-mocking, caricature that
unfolds into revelation.
It was written of the 16th century painter Pieter
Bruegel the Elder: "He looks for and finds things that
are extravagant and grotesque. He is barely interested in
showing man as he ought to be; on the contrary, he represents
him as he really is, with a kind of humorous violence, with
his defects, his passions and his prejudices, leaving to the
spectator the task of drawing a moral from what he paints."
Like Bruegel, Alexander paints people as bit
players against the eternal landscape. And like Bruegel, Alexander
surveys his culture from a perch high above it, the optimal
seat for watching a parade. The elevated viewpoint can simplify
things and also clarify them—rhythms and patterns emerge
that would go unperceived from within. Anecdotal details accumulate
into a panoramic picture, a view doubly privileged by both
macro and micro lenses.
Alexander is not a tourist to the world he pains
but a part of it, a member, a citizen who has stepped back
to view the scene from a distance, with sympathy and humor.
He may be high above it, but he claims no moral superiority.
He talks the talk and walks the walk, giving his paintings
the easy accessibility of folk, outsider or so-called naive
art. We can grasp the situations described with facility,
even though the spaces they occupy feel beyond reach. It is
a position cushioned by irony. Roger Brown, another of Bruegel's
progeny, infuses his paintings with a similar contradiction,
and the ambiguous space elicits an ambiguous response. As
with the space in Brown's work, so with Alexander's: "We
are forced to look at it from a state of powerlessness and
omniscience" (John Yau).
Alexander is not emotionally neutral, nor politically
disengaged, but rarely is he this moralistic, this didactic.
Occasionally anger seeps in and makes an explicit visual claim
for what is already implicit—that genre painting is
necessarily history painting. Days accrete, becoming eras.
Visual cataloguing of the everyday turns into ideological
ordering of the historic. The mundane is history evolving
at the pace of the second hand. Alexander is one of its observers,
its witnesses, whose testimony interprets as it records.
Those in Bruegel's paintings feast publicly
on food and drink and dance. In Alexander's, we sate ourselves
with power and death. Death plays many roles in Alexander's
work--as ultimate moral check, unsettling reminder of global
politics and physical fact. A skeletal caddy attends George
Bush on his golf game; another acts as umpire in a nighttime
baseball game between Japan and Cuba. The living and dead
play basketball together, both equally buoyant in their Nikes
and Reeboks. The bicycle-riding, mail-carrying, sword-wielding,
dancing, drunken calaveras of Jose Guadalupe Posada have returned
for an encore performance, a reprise. Their act, after a century,
never gets stale, for which culture ever tires of death?
Whatever they might say about the dark underpinnings
of our culture, Alexander's paintings are as seductive as
candy—bright, sweet, fast and direct, nuggets of lurid
color and saccharine flavor. They are fun, entertaining, busy,
dense with sensation and burlesque humor, a refreshing antidote
to the dour dryness of much contemporary art. But Alexander
plays the fool, the wise fool, tickling as he taunts, gift-wrapping
a bomb. His paintings are fun, even if what we ultimately
discover about ourselves with them is disheartening, embarrassing
or worse. Narcissism, xenophobia, fear, violence and greed
keep up a steady, relentless beat, faint but recognizable
through the sprightly, tinkling melody. Alexander's paintings
are vibrant, but still they cast a shadow, a shadow of doubt
over our lives, our motives, the parades we lead and those