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Translating Memories With a Light Touch

On the eve of his first survey show, Peter Alexander remembers the origins of his luminous work.

May 16, 1999|HUNTER DROHOJOWSKA-PHILP | Hunter Drohojowska-Philp is an occasional contributor to Calendar

A young boy sits with his family on the sand as a shower of meteors dazzles the night sky and sparkles the blackened sea over Newport Beach. "It was an indelible impression, one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen," Peter Alexander recalls. "And I am sure that when you experience things like that when you are young, you've been branded somehow."

The gray-haired Alexander, now 60, believes such recollections are channeled indirectly into his sculptures, pastels, paintings and tapestries. Sumptuous sunsets, celestial glitter, moon glow, neon signs and street lamps--Alexander looks to the seductive properties of light, natural or artificial, as the subject of his art. From his earliest forays as a member of L.A.'s so-called Light and Space movement, to his more recent paintings of flood-lit Las Vegas statuary, Alexander is consistent within his diversity. The first survey of his work, "Peter Alexander: In This Light," opens at the Orange County Museum of Art on Saturday. Organized by the museum's director, Naomi Vine, with art critic Dave Hickey, the exhibition of 65 works was designed by Alexander's close friend, artist Billy Al Bengston.

In his Marina del Rey studio, Alexander appears lanky and tan from his seaside life and bemusedly patrician, wearing a well-cut blazer over his green shirt and slacks, with pale orange socks visible above the blue running shoes. He smokes determinedly, using a cigarette holder as he lounges on a pink linen sofa that stands on an area rug cut from synthetic turf. The studio walls offer some recent work: nightscapes of the L.A. streets and purple palm trees against a lemon sky. "They are all about the specificity of light," Alexander says. "Does it glow? How bright is it? How dim is it? Does it have a color?"

In his catalog essay, Hickey writes, "[Alexander's] art has always devoted its most profound attention to the soft, glistening, metamorphic edge of things, where solids turn liquid and liquids dissolve into atmosphere, where sight and touch are indistinguishable and we can always feel the air as it moves in off the ocean."

Alexander says, "Why do I like night skies, water, polka dots? I go through the memory bank and come up with the most vivid memories that I have." He cites another childhood observation, during World War II, when freshly manufactured airplanes were sent to El Toro for test flights. "The pilots would come out over the ocean at Newport at night and dogfight," he recalls. "Sometimes they would blow up, so it was like looking at the war from your frontyard. I remember the flames coming out of these planes as they went into the ocean. It was horrific, but at the same time I was distanced enough from it as a kid that what I saw was the spectacle."

Pausing for clarification, he adds, "The memories are real but it would be presumptuous to think you know what you are doing as a painter. These are not literal translations, they are sensual translations."

Alexander's fascination with light first manifested itself while he was studying art at UCLA in the mid-'60s. Having surfed from the age of 13, he realized that the resin applied as the gloss coat to his board could refract and hold light. In no time, he was casting resin into elemental and geometric shapes like pyramids, cubes and wedges. The forms of frozen light held the eerie translucence of a glassy wave briefly poised before the thunderous crash into surf.

"Minimalism was in the air at the time. The idea was no fingerprints, no evidence of how something was made," Alexander says. Even more influential were the years, from 1957 to 1965, that he spent studying architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, the Architectural Assn. in London, UC Berkeley and the University of Southern California. Just before graduating from USC, he worked for architect William Pereira, at which time he realized "architecture wasn't for me."

After transferring to UCLA's art department, where he finished his undergraduate and graduate degrees in fine arts in 1966, the resin sculptures reflected his architectural understanding of the relationship of light to form. "It was a rational architectural thought process that was being attached to the objects. To use Louis Kahn's phrase, 'What does the building want to be?' What does the object want to be? What does the material want to be? The early cubes and wedges were dictated by molds of quarter-inch tempered glass. It made everything geometric, which was the objective. I imagined that was the kind of person I was," he says.

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