Addled by the Sun, Delightedly

Photo by Jack GouldSo let's get this straight: when Peter Alexander single-handedly invented California's Light N Space movemen—which put LA on the New York-centric map in the '60s, at least according to LA's own bad self—the Newport Beach boy did so while repairing a surfboard.

This is so perfect for so very many reasons, not the least of which is the serendipity of the slavishly shallow works being invented by a practitioner of what's widely derided as a sport for sun-addled boys without brains in their pretty little heads—although it's not viewed as such by us, of course.

The Orange County Museum of Art (OCMA)already had a set of Alexander's parallel-line, bas-relief wall hangings in its permanent collection; now it has an entire bloody show. And it is breathtakingly beautiful. Neither a traveling exhibition organized elsewhere nor an exhibit of a major artist's minor works, “Peter Alexander:In This Light” is the best exhibit I've seen at the OCMA.

Whether or not they knew that Alexander's resin pillars and obelisks had their genesis in a surfboard, New Yorkers still had plenty of bitchy things to say. Joseph Maschek (quoted by guest curator Dave Hickey in the wonderful catalog) snarled in Art Forum in 1971, “[T]he prospect of hip, young dropout types hanging out in Venice, California, making fancy baubles for the rich, amuses us.” Me-ow!

But Alexander was touchy-feely before touchy-feely was cool. He soon abandoned his pretty baubles—precursors to the resin-slathered slabs of $30,000 John McCracken red—to work in the misunderstood media of sunsets and Tijuana velvet. Understandably, this dropped him off the radar for a while: while sunsets are fine for anyone making driftwood-and-decoupage clocks, they're not the stuff of the haute monde. Common people appreciate sunsets, you know, and, like butterflies, they're free. And velvet wouldn't become respectable again until the Huntington Beach Art Center resuscitated Edgar Leeteg last year. You see, Alexander wasn't using it ironically.

But that very refusal to stay with the slick resin works that had given him his name (the resin was toxic, for one, but it was more than that; he was tired of the jaded distance of the work. He wanted to be able to touch things—to finger paint, in fact) is what makes “In This Light” not just another retrospective of a tiresome '60s LA artist who thinks he's so damn cool.

Alexander's resin works were at the forefront of the Finish Fetish movement. May 5, 1971 is a series of five vertical bars almost 6 feet tall that blur of their own accord: they shimmer and weave, and you can't look straight at them. They're like the whispering walls of an oncoming acid trip; if he'd rented himself out to Hollywood, we all would have been spared those laughable, slo-mo/ weaving-camera “acid party” scenes (didn't they always culminate in someone leaping from a window or Ratso Rizzo coughing himself to death?) in movies from 1967 on. They are extraordinary.

Alexander perfected resin techniques, experimenting until he was able to trap water vapors inside cubes, manufacturing clouds suspended in crystallized air. And then he moved on—to media like “glitter,” which must have appalled the cognoscenti no end. Texas Blue is a 1975 conglomeration of black velvet and blue glitter suffusing an entire horizon with aurora borealis-like lightning bolts and rays. It should be hideous but is instead both electric and serene, garish and delicate.

In 1987, Alexander went to India. One corner of a large gallery is given over to inky nightscapes of the Indian jungle. The jungle scenes from his stay there are terrifying: the indigo paintings—deep with black—range up to 13 feet long. They're somewhat reminiscent of the Ray Bradbury story “The Veldt,” in which the scenery wall of a children's room eats their parents. Trees and vines grow lush and thick—and in the dark, they could hide all manner of creepies. They're terribly well-delineated, though apparently they were done as finger paintings.

Alexander's '90s work has gone back to the tenets of Light N Space: his dark canvases, awash in blinding white acrylics, are blurry, drunken, otherworldly aura shots. You can't focus on them any more than you could focus on whatever was in the Chevy Malibu's trunk in Repo Man. Sometimes they're merely headlights, and sometimes they're actually spirit forms. At other times, they return to just being palm trees. Alexander gets acrylic to look like corrosives on metal, reacting chemically to form a new compound where previously there had been only black. It's almost alchemy.

Alexander focuses often on the sky—a green sky here, an unbelievably sexy red sky there, with blinding yellow-white flashes that are both nuclear and climactic, like one giant, painted, intra-honey pot money shot. And he comes from the sky to look at the small white polka dots that make up LA at night; first he looks at it from the popular car-nookie spot at the top of Topanga Canyon, and then he swoops down from a helicopter. Often, like in Bonita and Buena Vista, there's a cataclysmic yellow glow eating up the nighttime horizon. There is the beauty of the shore at night, with the lights encroaching unsuccessfully on the mountains. It is all Alexander's love for this place mixed with his wishy-washy fear. LA, land of plagues. That is so New York. Or OC.

“Peter Alexander: In This Light” at Orange County Museum of Art at Newport Beach, 850 San Clemente Dr., Newport Beach, (949) 759-1122. Through Sept. 12. Open Tues.-Sun., 11 a.m.-5 p.m. $4-$5; free on Tues.

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