Art, like politics, is polarizing by nature. Although there are plenty of universally likable artists—Monet and his water lilies come to mind—the vast majority tend to elicit diametrically opposed reactions. John Alexander is one such example: You either love his stark, emotionally charged landscapes or you hate them. You either get his dense, satiric scenes or you don’t. So it’s no surprise that the Beaumont-born painter’s first major retrospective, currently on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, is stirring up passionate opinions.
When “John Alexander: A Retrospective” debuted last December at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington Post critic Blake Gopnik questioned “why our national museum…would want to highlight such a secondary figure” and called Alexander out on his tendency to “overact” and “gild the lily.” It’s true: There’s little that is understated about Alexander’s approach. Of the 61 oil paintings and 36 works on paper you’ll see in the expanded exhibit in Houston, most are filled with odd juxtapositions—a black bird wears an American flag like a dunce cap in Raven Maniac, an old-fashioned locomotive emerges from a verdant rain forest in Glory Bound—as well as menacing imagery, like the haloed black and white skeletons wrapped in chains and rising out of a bog in the 1984 oil painting The Annunciation. But it’s precisely this complexity that Alexander’s admirers find so engaging. His paintings, writes MFAH director Peter Marzio, “hold their own with the famous prints by John James Audubon … and they express the mystery of a Goya masterwork.”
For Alexander, who so clearly wears his ire—for political corruption, religious hypocrisy, and environmental degradation—on his canvas, pushing the boundaries has always outweighed the need to please audiences. “I’ve done art throughout my career that I’ve thought, ‘Nobody in their right mind’s going to want this,’” he says. He offers up by way of example his 2006 tour de force Parade, a seven-by-fifteen-foot canvas filled edge to edge with 250 figures (skeletons, clowns, pigs, monkeys, and masked and beaked men among them) descending into a black muck, which will be shown exclusively at the MFAH. Even his more straightforward landscapes—like the lush, if sappy, Melon Fields, with its busted and bleeding watermelons—are haunting, he says, because “I look at the most beautiful things in nature, and I’m saddened, because I know they’re going away.” If you’ve spent any time in East Texas, you’ll recognize the bogs and bayous of his boyhood and understand his love of place and that feeling of loss.
Baring his soul in such an overt way is both Alexander’s balm and his blight. “My work has always been a reflection of where I am emotionally and psychologically at any particular time,” he says. “I’ve put a lot out there, and it’s cost me. I never have been one of the darlings of the art world.” Perhaps not, but Alexander does have some influential people in his corner, including Jane Livingston, the independent curator who organized this exhibit, and the prominent art critic Robert Hughes, who contributed an essay to the show’s accompanying catalog. But even if you can’t imagine shelling out thousands of dollars for one of his nightmarish murals, this retrospective, which very carefully traces his development over the past three decades, will endear you to the raw sentiment of this dark horse. At the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston through June 22; 713-639-7300, mfah.org
Have a Ball
Everyone remembers his first time. The nerves. The rush. That heady mix of excitement and trepidation. Folks may do the deed for a variety of reasons (to scratch an itch, to conquer a fear) and with varied results (earth-shattering, just plain awkward), but nothing compares to that sacred moment, that first taste of . . . calf fries.
Yes, the deep-fried delicacies—also known as the swinging anatomy that separates the bulls from the steers—are an acquired taste. But sampling them is a seminal challenge for any Texan, a way to honor the “waste not, want not, fry everything” machismo of our cowboy and Indian ancestors. (The former would throw them in the campfire, wait for them to pop, and eat them whole. The latter would roll them in mud, then do the same.) Today, they’re standard menu items at some of our venerable eateries—Riscky’s Steakhouse, in Fort Worth; Reata in Alpine—for which you can likely thank Theo Yordanoff, a Yugoslav cafe owner in Fort Worth back in the twenties. After a cowboy requested the dish, Yordanoff inquired about the price of the male parts down at the stockyards. They were free, he was told, if he would cart them off. His 15-cent calf fry sandwich became a best-seller.
Not that we need to qualify the historical significance of the tender meat. Texans will gamely eat just about anything that’s been soaked in milk then sliced then dredged in flour then deep-fried. Or