Catalog essay for the exhibition


David Findlay Jr Gallery, New York

September 5 - 29, 2012


Steven Alexander does not paint paintings, he makes them. What brushwork they feature does not comprise them, but enhances them, “flavors” them, if you will, with the subtle enhancement of surface. Everything else in Alexander’s work is about relative density – the density of pigmented material, the density of composition, the density of color, and the co-operation of these factors in the construction of a presence that can claim at once the qualities of an object and those of a picture.

Alexander’s palette is subtle and quite deliberately beautiful, but also quite deliberately un-seductive, veering a bit too far towards both the decorative and the coarse to be inherently attractive. Rather, his color decisions, and equally those of texture – positing earthen grains (as well as tones) here, precious-metal sheens there, the limpid saturation of cloth, the luster of liquid, and so forth – conspire to transcend the optical, however they might appeal to the eye. Indeed, they might not appeal to the eye; but they always appeal to some other, sympathetic nerve endings. You can taste certain of these paintings; you can hear others. And, even with your hands behind your back, you can feel them all.

These paintings, compositionally and experientially, are boundless. That is, they do not have a beginning or an end, their formations rarely contained by the edges of the panel, their fields of energy invariably extending beyond. Their inferred space thus encompasses us, or at least the entirety of our visual field. In this respect alone they owe a great debt to the mature work of Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman. But they work upon us less as those painters’ vast walls of color do and more as do the mature works of Piet Mondrian, with their architectural or cartographic asymmetries building themselves, with irresistible logic, off the canvas and in every direction. That is Alexander’s logic, too, although he relies less on Mondrian’s structural coherence and more on Rothkoesque optical stimulation to carry his formulations – and our eyes with them – beyond the picture plane and into space.

Mondrian, of course, was an easel painter and Rothko and Newman were not; it’s not by accident that Alexander chooses to produce works whose dimensions refer to but are not quite bounded by the easel. To us, easel-size painting proposes a pictorial condition, something we apprehend by sight. The mural-like painting of the abstract expressionists, by contrast, proposes a somatic condition, something we apprehend through no one specific sense but through overall corporeal awareness. Alexander proposes something of both – a containable full-body experience that is also an engulfing visual experience – and finds thereby a “third way,” a window whose frame essentially encompasses our sense of ourselves. We find ourselves in and among Alexander’s forms and hues and textures, even as we are able to view the dynamics of their formal relations.

It should be noted that Steven Alexander’s paintings are unusually resistant to reproduction. The emphasis here is on “unusually.” We accept without question that reproductions rob artworks of certain qualities essential to our full and often sufficient appreciation. Virtual presentation compromises all non-virtual artwork. What is invariably lost in the reproduction of Alexander’s paintings, however, is the work’s very essence, its raison d’être, all its magic. Alexander’s art is not unique in this regard; he adds to a growing body of current painting that offsets the experiential restrictions of the digital age by providing the somatic actuality digital imagery cannot. At least until digital technology allows us to kiss our lovers’ lips from thousands of miles away, such highly “actual” painting – Alexander’s not least – requires actual encounter.

Peter Frank, Los Angeles, July 2012