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Jason Shawn Alexander: Undertow

Jason Shawn Alexander, Santa Monica, 2011, ink, graphite, oil stick, paper collage, oil on paper on canvas, 95” x 52”

Jason Shawn Alexander, Santa Monica, 2011, ink, graphite, oil stick, paper collage, oil on paper on canvas, 95” x 52”

101/exhibit - Miami

By Jenifer Mangione Vogt

There is stillness in the work of emotive painter Jason Shawn Alexander that is simultaneously comforting and disturbing. In his exhibition “Undertow” at 101/exhibit, which showcased 20 new paintings, all created in 2011, there was a demonstrated melancholy, and perhaps this is the “undertow” to which the show’s title refers. An undertow is, after all, “a current below the surface of the sea moving in the opposite direction.” As the word implies, no matter what you see on the surface of Alexander’s work, there’s something tugging at you from a greater depth.

For example, in A Matter of Disagreement, a figure appears to writhe painfully to the right of the canvas. However, the viewer is left to wonder why. The title insinuates an argument, so perhaps the figure has just been struck and the body is reacting to the blow. Or perhaps the “disagreement” is one between body and mind. Maybe the subject is dealing with a physical disability, in which his mind wants to go in one direction but his body takes another. The cause isn’t as important as the strength of the work itself to evoke a narrative within one’s mind. Hence, the deeper pull.

Alexander tells stories in all of his works, and as with most art, viewers assign meaning and significance based on their mental state-of-mind-their own Rorschach reaction. However, not all artists tell stories as effectively, or as effusively, as Alexander, nor do they evoke the emotional response that his work elicits. He portrays an alluring cast of characters, drawn from life. “The people in my work primarily are people in my life-ones I really want to portrait and explore more in paint,” he says. “The ones that I’ve used that I don’t really know, I’ve used because I have ideas for images or narratives that their specific look tends to work for.”

Jason Shawn Alexander, Migration, 2011, oil on paper, 109” x 76”

Jason Shawn Alexander, Migration, 2011, oil on paper, 109” x 76”

Women in Alexander’s life are frequently his subjects and are particularly enticing, such as his wife Dinora, the central figure in Migration, or the woman in Heather, Heather, who appears in multiple canvases. These women are real, not idealized. They slouch; their breasts sag in the normal way. They’re often depicted nude, or topless, and, as such, vulnerable. In Jessica, the woman appears as though she may be evaluating her body. There’s an enticing fragility to all of Alexander’s women that indicates a longing for approval, which he provides, because his portrayals evoke sympathy, as though he is exposing their frailty in a gently protective, yet provocative nonetheless, manner.

There’s a physical depth to Alexander’s work in “Undertow” that marks an evolution of his artistic process. This phase finds him working in layers, moving beyond simply painting into the realm of mixed media, and this makes his compositions equally intriguing from the standpoint of their construction. As 101/exhibit director Sloan Schaffer points out, “These canvases are the most complex constructions of his paintings yet. This work demonstrates a new freedom in expression. He’s let his guard down. He never did this because he was always afraid that people would not view him as a fine artist. So if you look at work from 2008 and 2009 it’s just oil on canvas.”

Alexander’s initial guardedness was the result of his being mostly a self-taught painter, hesitant initially to deviate from the fine art standard for painting yet voraciously learning the craft in order to expand his knowledge. He began his career as a comic book illustrator and was successful, but the feeling of being stifled and constrained in that work led him to begin painting for himself. The narratives that develop within his work emanate from an inner calling. He has a need to express his own stories, his own life, through imagery that is sometimes literal, sometimes obscure, but always personal.

Jason Shawn Alexander, Undertow, 2011, oil on canvas, 54” x 54”

Jason Shawn Alexander, Undertow, 2011, oil on canvas, 54” x 54”

He learned to paint by observing mentors and continuously studies art processes and artists. However, he forces his mind to be tabula rasa when he works. As he wrote on his blog while preparing for this exhibit, “Having all of this knowledge, literally a small library full of art history through current contemporaries. Forcing myself, in the end, to throw them all aside and accept no influence for a few months.” Also vital for him, he said in an interview, is the importance of keeping his workspace clutter-free. “I can’t have distractions. It takes all of my concentration to focus on two paintings at a time. If anything else existed in that space it would take over. “

We can pinpoint the beginning of Alexander’s looser, yet more physically intricate, style in Santa Monica, a work that combines drawing, collage and painting. And while Alexander conveys that he counts Francis Bacon among the artists that influence him, there are also, especially with this work, similarities to the pictorial language of David Salle. What are most interesting in Alexander’s works at this point are the layers-drawing, painting, paper and ink, indicative of the moment in which he begins to work with no limitations, with no walls up. This is the moment when he makes that transition and allows himself more creative freedom.

This current process involves working first on a drawing, which is then adhered to canvas and painted upon. As Alexander explains, “I believe I’m much more of a natural draftsman than anything. I wanted to incorporate the drawing much more. I began working on the floor in large sheets of paper, then mounting them to the canvas. There were problems with this method from having to cut the drawing up and put it back together and possibly ruining parts of the drawing. I began tearing paper and mounting it to canvas, first, to add texture to the work and allow me to then draw with ink and quill directly on the piece.”

The result is work that is as nuanced in construction as it is in allegory, work that tells both a visual story and a physical one. For Alexander, the progression to the point we see in “Undertow” is profound, yet this is only one stop on his journey.

(December 2, 2011 - February 8, 2012)

Jenifer Mangione Vogt is an arts writer based in Boca Raton, FL.

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