John Alexander has a strange sensibility. Part satirical cartoonist, part romantic expressionist, he paints up a storm for the sheer love of it but often splashes away his efforts on jokes.
The artist, who lives in New York and Houston, seems determined to say something important with all that talent and a little embarrassed about being a social critic. So we find intensely painted oils of, say, the Garden of Eden, in which a suited Adam presents a flounder to a nude Eve while a surrounding dark forest bristles with skeletons and spectral natives.
In a wedding ceremony, attended by baboons, the groom holds an animal that appears to have been subjected to an electric shock treatment. A "Summit Conference" takes place between two apes; a "Wise Old Owl" is pathetically dejected; the Statue of Liberty turns her back on New Jersey; fish clamor for food in a painting called "The Trickle Down Theory." To read Alexander's titles is to list his concerns or at least the images that fascinate him.
Humor is notoriously hard to handle in art, and there's a debilitating streak of silliness in Alexander's treatment of serious themes, but his work is fun to look at because it's so spirited and richly painted. He piles up brush strokes like Pick Up Sticks, with the result that his lines look starched or electrified. Many of the scenes seem to be set in swamps or dank forests, and the light always radiates from the center. It's the old light-in-the-clearing idea except that the clearing is crawling with traumatized beasts.
Despite problems, Alexander earns respect because he isn't a formulaic Neo-Expressionist. As he sorts out his direction, he mines his Southern heritage, examines modern art's affinity to primitivism and questions art's tradition of needling the status quo. (Jan Turner Gallery, 8000 Melrose Ave., to April 21.)