One of the great things about the Ogden Museum of Southern Art is its insightful way of presenting artists in a context revealing how they were influenced by — and influenced — their surroundings. Or at least, such was the case until it staged this infelicitous dual exhibition of Walter Anderson and John Alexander. Despite related origins and subject matter, it is hard to imagine two more disparate artists.
Born in New Orleans in 1903, Anderson evolved into a hermit in Ocean Springs, Miss., spending long stretches of time communing with nature on uninhabited Horn Island in the Gulf. A solitary mystic, his vision was as singularly ethereal as Van Gogh's.
Born in Beaumont, Texas, in 1945, Alexander has been a New York fixture since the early 1980s. A one-time neo-expressionist, he now bills himself as a nature painter, cranking out decorative conversation pieces like the ones in this show. So instead of wild world mysticism, Alexander gives us something more like a day at an upscale zoo, including an occasional wine glass in his animal compositions, or a cross-dressing monkey. There's nothing wrong with that, but compared to Anderson he can seem glib. Worse, his extroverted canvases tend to overwhelm the rather muted selection of Anderson pieces, a group that includes many small watercolors on typewriter paper like Blue Crab (pictured), so it's like trying to hear a soft-spoken poet above the din at a noisy cocktail party. It doesn't work well. Alexander has overreached before — he once scored a retrospective at the Smithsonian only to receive scathing reviews from The Washington Post, and when the show traveled to Texas, the Houston Press billed it "Alexander the Mediocre." Ironically, an Alexander show at the Ogden might have made sense if it hadn't been paired with Anderson. Both Henri Matisse and "Blue Dog" painter George Rodrigue occasionally painted figures in landscapes, but that doesn't mean they would benefit from being exhibited together. The same holds true here. — D. Eric Bookhardt
Through July 24
One World, Two Artists: Works by John Alexander and Walter Anderson
Ogden Museum of Southern Art, 925 Camp St., 539-9600; www.ogdenmuseum.org