Catalog essay for the exhibition
Steven Alexander: World At Large
Gremillion & Co. Fine Art, Houston
March 29 - April 29, 2007
Whether the canvases are turned horizontally or vertically, the compositions of Steven Alexander's variously scaled paintings consist of two tiers of colored vertical bands that change in width and are characterized by the classic simplicity of a (modernist) grid. The field itself is divided into quadrants although often the median horizontal demarcation prevails over the cruciform. Additionally, these quadrants reflect the proportions of the overall canvas. Alexander complicates things, however, by his sequences of colors, his architectonic structure a neutral, if taut and necessary scaffold for the dazzling interplay of color. It is color that is the soul of this enterprise and through the richness and range of his palette, he recapitulates the history of art in a schematic, color-coded abstract distillation. Roman and Asian wall paintings, Renaissance frescoes, Henri Matisse, Hans Hoffman, Barnett Newman, Brice Marden and Sean Scully are a few of the heady associations that these paintings bring to mind.
But it is as perceptual experience and sensual objects that these paintings were conceived. The different widths of the color bands establish a syncopated rhythm across the surface as the opulent hues vibrate against each other in duets, trios and as an ensemble, each color causing a response that catalyzes a visual chain reaction. A frission occurs at the line of juncture between colors, at times juxtaposed with its complementary shade, or its near complementary. For instance, the green sandwiched between an orange and a red in the upper right hand quadrant of Axis (2007) seems to expand and contract, pulsing within the limits of its space in a kind of push-pull while the lines of demarcation between the colors sometimes shimmer, as one color resonates against another. Each band of color interacts with its adjacent bands, each quadrant with the others and then with the painting as a whole. It's an inductive method, bulding up toward a total image and then deconstructing the whole back into its constituent parts, each module resembling a musical note with its particular tone and timbre that is "played" by the eye, activated like a musical score. The tactile, lively surfaces with their dense layers of paint, sometimes frayed and fretted at the edges, sometimes crackled, are perfectly calibrated as color and shape act together, a seductive combination of line and color, the astringent and the lush.
These are not analytical paintings based on a pre-conceived system but intuitively made as one color calls up another and is measured against another, balanced and counterweighted. The slender band of bright electrified green in Kali (2006) asserts a different presence in the contrast of broader planes of warm reds and blacks, greys, browns and deep blue; a phenomenon Alexander knows well and expertly orchestrates. The lovely Rubbing (2006), although light - a study in greys, white creams, pale yellows and oranges - has one red band that stands out and keys the entire painting, a signature strategy. Chrome Yellow (2006) is a plummy combination of dark and bright and has a stripe of irresistible pink paired with black on one side and two kinds of yellow on the other in the lower half, while the upper register stars a gorgeous purple-black-orange combo. The titles too, are points of reference for Alexander and conjure up a sense of place - Lhasa (2006), Soma (2006) - or the palette of another artist - After Bellini (2006) - without fixing the image, an open-endedness that is one of abstraction's great advantages.
Alexander is a gifted colorist engrossed by process who continues to believe in pure painting, certain that there is still immense gratification to be obtained by simply looking - when followed by seeing.
Lilly Wei is a New York-based independent curator, essayist and critic who writes regularly for Art in America and is contributing editor at ARTnews and Art Asia Pacific.