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AT THE GALLERIES / Leah Ollman

Mortality and Humor Collide in Wick Works

June 23, 1989|Leah Ollman

Kitsch and commentary both get their due in the recent work of Wick Alexander, now on view at the Dietrich Jenny Gallery (660 9th Ave.).

From black velvet parodies to brightly hued tragedies, Alexander's paintings charm, tease and lament. Humor collides with mortality on more than one occasion and violence--to the body, spirit and earth--thrives in beautiful locales.

Alexander, a local artist and graduate of the UC San Diego Master of Fine Arts program, paints with a light touch; his clear, accessible forms evoking aspects of illustration, cartoons and folk art.

Whether taking a pointed view of the U.S. border with Mexico, a satiric stab at condos on the fairway or a voyeuristic peek into a gringo's tropical island fantasy, Alexander approaches his subjects with a naive charm. He grazes over sensitive social issues, but never lets a prescribed agenda override his regard for the canvas as visual playground.

In "La Linea," for instance, Alexander tucks references to illegal border crossing and economic inequity into an otherwise quaint survey of the border's architectural landmarks. Seen from an elevated viewpoint and spanning a broad horizontal canvas, the scene appears at once to be of both epic ambition and diminutive scale.

The Centro Cultural's familiar dome, the bullfighting ring and the ubiquitous liquor stores, body shops, bars and clubs define Tijuana, while a dusty field and half-completed housing development make up the southern edge of this country. An Immigration and Naturalization Service helicopter hovers over the border, blind to a pair of figures scampering north beyond the border fence, toward the cluster of "Robbing Hood Homes." Just as their passage escapes the view of the INS, so do they miss the message of a nearby billboard on which the familiar Marlboro man stands beside a barbed wire fence. Across the bottom of the sign runs the warning: "The Government Has Determined That Border Crossing is Dangerous to Health."

By lacing the painting's folksy naivete with a pungent social message, Alexander himself straddles the border between two genres in an amusing, poignant manner. In "Bamboo Hut" and a series of paintings on round, pressed wood panels, his subjects are more obscure, but his style is just as immediate and playful.

A row of slim bamboo stalks screens the image in "Bamboo Hut," painted in garish colors on black velvet. Looking through the bamboo becomes a mildly surreptitious act, especially when the painting's subject becomes clear. In the hot orange and screaming green typical of black velvet paintings, Alexander lays out the essential ingredients of tropical paradise: sunset, lush foliage and coarsely built huts on the water's edge.

As in "La Linea," however, Alexander undermines the familiar or cliche with hints of a less seductive social reality. On one of the water's banks, a typical tourist relaxes beside his fishing box and portable barbecue. Between his legs looms a tall palm tree; a nude woman clings to the top of the trunk, just beneath a cluster of coconuts. On the opposite bank a skeleton sits, fishing.

"Bamboo Hut" reads as a comic, sexually suggestive image, but it can also be interpreted as an indictment of Western culture's fantasies about primitivism and the enticing conquest of "less civilized" peoples. The presence of the skeleton signals the inevitable, ominous end of such pursuits.

Two of Alexander's paintings on round panels also tickle the senses but follow up with a slap. In "Retablo for Lupe," a man operating a forklift begins to deposit a tree bedecked with butterfly wings into its human-designated spot of earth when the chain holding the tree to the vehicle snaps. The tree threatens to crush the gardener standing below, equipped only with a shovel and a comic-book expression of fright.

"My Retablo" depicts a related scene. This time a palm tree is being mechanically inserted into a neat square plot when the rig collides with overhead electrical wires. Workmen scatter as the wires snap and emit a visible "Bzzzzzttt POP." The simple renderings, with their crudely drawn figures and cartoon sound effects, convey the situation at a glance and even suggest a moral: When humans subvert the natural order, they enter the unpredictable world of the absurd, crass and potentially dangerous. Two paintings of golfing scenes also indict the artificiality of contemporary urban life, especially our twisting of the land to suit practical, profitable motives.

Alexander dips briefly into the celebration of untrammelled nature in the pastel "Orchids and Bromeliads." Elsewhere he pays homage to the tragic life of artist Frida Kahlo and wallows in the pure kitsch of black velvet painting.

In "La Guerra de los Mariachis," Alexander stages a mad festival of cliches, both good-humored and crude, in the public square of a Mexican village. Lovers kiss in the street, children play in the public fountain, men stagger with open bottles, dogs sniff at each other and mariachis play throughout the chaos. A devil stands in one doorway, and a skeleton in another, reminders that Alexander is always keen to the omens, spirits and shadows that darken even the most whimsical parade.

The show continues through July 1.

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