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David Alexander in his studio overlooking the Okanagan Valley.
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"Hike Down Last Night"
David Alexander, "Hike Down Last Night," 2004, acrylic on panel, 12" x 9".
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David Alexander, "Fire Surface," 2004, acrylic on canvas, 52" x 58".
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"Mountain Light Reflects"
David Alexander, "Mountain Light Reflects," 2004, acrylic on canvas, 24" x 39 1⁄2".
David Alexander paints intimate reverential portraits of water, prairie, rock and forest.
By Gilbert A. Bouchard
Landscape painter David Alexander might document the coast of Newfoundland or paint a volcanic wasteland in Iceland, but he keeps returning to a handful of archetypal Canadian vistas.
Semi-jokingly referring to them as his “never-ending series of work,” the BC-based artist rattles off his canonic subject matters with reverence: water, open prairie, rock and forest.
Not that this split visual allegiance should come as a big surprise. Water: he’s the son of a tugboat operator raised on the sea. Open prairie: up until last year, Saskatchewan had been his home for several decades. Rock: typically this imagery produces his most dramatic work and it’s usually inspired by the hiking trails of the Alberta Rockies. As for forest: he’s depicted woods from Newfoundland to the interior of BC in large part because of his love of canoeing and his well-earned reputation as an outdoorsperson.
These visual tropes might be expressed singly – as with his patented tight-cropped and highly mysterious mountain rock face portraits – or he might mix-and-match his inspirations, depicting a heavily wooded alpine scene centered by an expressive body of water.
“It’s always all about the land, even in the water paintings I do. It’s about reflections of the landscape and the inescapability of it all. I just have to look into the water and I get thousands of ideas,” he says.
Partially inspired by Claude Monet, Alexander is dedicated to producing work that he calls “all surface,” creating landscapes that shun well-worn vistas.
Case in point – why chop off the tops of mountainscapes? Easy: he doesn’t “ever want to paint mountains that have been named or already been done,” aiming for the essence of the place in his evocative paintings. “This is what the landscape feels like, rather than what there is to be seen.”
The abbreviated mountain rock faces are all about the process of deconstructing our sense of place – our very “invention of the idea of land” – with an intimate, even claustrophobic portrait that is “what you really see when you go up to see that vista.”
An easy conversationalist who loves to talk about the stories and inspirations behind his paintings and the theories and feelings that underlie his practice, Alexander is nothing if not an intense painter. This is not a man who undertakes things lightly. He expresses a profound spirituality in his work, going as far as to quote Simon Schama’s hypothesis in Landscape and Memory that some tracts of land have a spiritual reality that sits alongside their profane uses.
In an earlier conversation about a forest-themed series of work, Alexander referred to towering tree portraits done outside of Nelson, BC, as containing “cathedral window” views and being all about “height and religiosity.”
This spiritual intensity reflects itself humourously in the wacky anthropomorphic connections he projects upon his canvases. Alexander jokingly titled a recent canvas Bully, Nerds in a moment of satirical irreverence because that’s what was evoked by the spatial relationship between a solitary large tree in a stand of punier growth.
This great intensity and personal connection to landscape also reflects itself in Alexander’s no-holds-barred advocacy towards more enlightened stewardship vis-à-vis Canada’s natural spaces.
“Too many Canadians just don’t know what stewardship means,” the painter says, adding that Canadians are too quick to measure the landscape by its development potential rather than a more environmentally complete concept of space.
“I hear really devastating terms used to talk about the land, like opposing ‘farm land’ to ‘scrub brush’, as if scrub land was an area left over from development and not a place in its own right. Elk Island Park is pretty much all scrubby brush land, but it’s also really beautiful.”
Alexander’s opinion of Canadians’ generally weak sense of stewardship has only intensified since he and his wife built a gorgeous home with a “million-dollar view” on a hill overlooking the Okanagan Valley just outside Kelowna. The artist can’t help noticing that bevies of rich Europeans are buying up whole mountainsides around his new home with every intention of living in their own little green preserves.
“You’d need to be a baron in Europe to have that much land and greenery around you. We need to have a bit of that attitude, and fight to make sure Canada stays good for the next 500 years.”
As for his new home, Alexander notes with gravity that there is a huge price tag for beauty. He is less than thrilled with all the development he already sees in an area bursting with growth spurred on by wine-connoisseur tourism. Obviously he loves his custom-built, European-flavoured, flat-roofed, two-storey house terraced right into the valley-side and boasting his first-ever studio-built-as-a-studio (despite it being the smallest studio he’s had in two decades). But, “the big question is if I want a place in this valley.”
When asked if the move and the new digs has changed his art practice, Alexander says that the panoramic vista from this patio may impress visitors, but it’s not the kind of view he’s ever painted.
Ironically enough, what did have an impact on his practice was the year he spent semi-homeless waiting for his house to be finished.
Alexander ended up painting 150 uncharacteristic small works while working out of a small unheated garage-turned-studio last winter. This accident of circumstance awakened a desire to experiment more with form and also to market all the work he wants to make (including his beloved drawings) as opposed to only the larger canvases galleries find easy to sell.
“I’m just as thrilled by a painting that’s eight centimeters square as one that’s two by three meters, and I’m going back to painting a series of small paintings later this winter. This is all about turning my back on the art world for a few months and feeling like I’m a student again.”
An exhibition of new works by David Alexander runs February 20 to March 6 at Darrell Bell Gallery in Saskatoon. Alexander is represented by: Bau-Xi Gallery, Vancouver and Toronto; Virginia Christopher Fine Art in Calgary; Vanderleelie Gallery, Edmonton; Darrell Bell Gallery, Saskatoon; Galerie d’Avignon, Montreal; Michael Gibson Gallery, London, ON; Wallack Galleries, Ottawa; James Baird Gallery in St. John's, Nfld; and Art First, London, England.
Gilbert A. Bouchard is a visual arts writer in Edmonton.