Eight decades before the coming of LSD-inspired music and art, "decadents" walked dark streets, drugged out and delirious on absinthe and a modernist theory called symbolism, which emphasized art askew on emotion and psychic energy. Detroit artist Charles Alexander is inspired by the anarchic rebellion and heady romantic idealism that characterized both those important countercultural movements. Culling from periods in between, too, such as dada and pop, Alexander presents intriguing works on paper packed tight with saucy hieroglyphs for his solo show, The Illusion of Sex and Flowers, at Detroit's historic Scarab Club.
As Alexander himself suggests, his imagery is "both familiar and alien," as well as "rigid or fluid, masculine or feminine." A song title from Cream's iconic 1967 album Disraeli Gears aptly sums it up: "Strange Brew." Matter of fact, another song from that same album, "SWLABR," also aptly describes Alexander's art: "so many fantastic colors, I feel in a wonderland ... Got that rainbow feel but the rainbow has a beard." You probably had to be there, and you can tell this guy was. The intricate hypnotic visuals in Alexander's wildly colorful concoctions flash you back to Disraeli Gears' cover, designed by Martin Sharp, who also wrote lyrics for "Tales of Brave Ulysses" on that same record that are exactly Alexander: "The tiny purple fishes run laughing through your fingers."
Alexander's work is hippy, trippy and flippy, but it makes a heartfelt plea for peace, love and understanding. His utopian mission shines through, like the suns and moons that burst nova-like from the '60s art of Alexander Calder. Similar to Calder, Alexander uses strong color and elementary shapes mischievously and poignantly in his freer gestural pieces. "Black Square with Owner's Friend," like others similar, is scribbly and raw, and also slightly disturbing, like a message from an idiot-savant or a savior.
More typical of Alexander's style is "Lament for Icarus Weeping." For inspiration here, the artist goes back to the symbolists, those avant-gardists in literature, art and music who sought to transform reality into abstract signs that convey psychic tension. Here the artist recalls not messy expressionists, but the highly refined work of illustrator Aubrey Beardsley, who made mystery in black and white. Alexander shares a passion with Beardsley for dramatic mythological and biblical tales, glorious themes. You'll move your eyes fluidly across the paper, but the emphatic but elegant tension in his imagery can be overwrought, especially with so many sensuous and throbbing examples on display. Smelling salts, please!
Scanning the density in his pictures is like playing "Where's Icarus?" Close inspection reveals floral shapes, insects, wings, snails, bells. He also emphasizes body parts, such as hearts, bosoms, tongues. His favorites include penises and testicles, as befits the show's title and Alexander's proudly gay orientation. In his drawings, exotic winged creatures hover and hum over stamens in an exotic hothouse.
Music made by man and nature flows from Alexander's work. The symbolists would approve. It's a cacophony of maidens weeping, wings flapping, knights riding, swords clashing, Balinese dancing; Gilbert and Sullivan tubas, the murmuring of monks, the flapping of robes, the slithering of dragons. Like a pointillist, Alexander also has fun with the rhythmic repetition of dots and dashes and stripes, so the eye can't rest. It's apt, then, that eyes, as well as red tears, are an oft-repeated motif.
It'd be better to show Alexander's work in the white-walled downstairs gallery where there isn't a border of southern-facing windows that can wash out the art. But it's fitting that his work, with its many references to art history, is exhibited in the lounge gallery upstairs. The room is enclosed by history, where Diego Rivera, Isamu Noguchi, John Sloan and Norman Rockwell, among many others, have signed the ceiling beams. Visiting is an honor, and the art's not so bad either.
The Illusion of Sex and Flowers runs through Feb. 10 at the Scarab Club, 217 E. Farnsworth, Detroit; 313-831-1250.Christina Hill is a freelance writer for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.