landscapes of the real Southwest
Alexandre Hogue: An American Visionary captures the true spirit of Texas
Five years ago, as I contemplated a move to Houston for work, I thought I was moving to a desert. How wrong I was, as are most Americans when they imagine what the in fact quite varied landscapes of Texas are like.
But that image of the spare, unforgiving yet hauntingly gorgeous landscapes of the Southwest more or less leapt off the iconic canvases of artist Alexandre Hogue, whose work has found expansive and fitting treatment in Susie Kalil’s Alexandre Hogue: An American Visionary(Texas A&M University Press, $35).
Kalil, no stranger to Houston, taught at the Glassell School of Art at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, curated Fresh Paint: The Houston School (with Barbara Rose) and The Texas Landscape: 1900-1986, and writes regularly for Artforum, Art in America, and other international arts publications.
Alexandre Hogue: An American Visionary features beautifully reproduced images of Hogue’s paintings and drawings, which were characteristically concerned with the vicissitudes of landscape, from Dust Bowl erosion to oil extraction or Big Bend grandeur.
Kalil thoughtfully traces Hogue’s development from Taos to Texas to Tulsa and back. This book will interest local art lovers, fans of regional arts masters like Grant Woods and Thomas Hart Benton, or anyone who would thrill to a painter in tune with an environment marked by a complex mix of grandeur and devastation.
As was the case for many artist’s of the era, Hogue’s life and sensibility were profoundly impacted by the Dust Bowl years, which was also the crucible of modern regionalism. Amidst a series of bitter disputes about what ought to be the direction of American painting, Hogue focused his attention on creating landscapes characterized by accurate and sensuous perception, piercing psychological acuity, and environmental awareness. Hogue referred to this combination as psycho-realism, a term that captures some of what renders these works singular and searing.
The apocalyptic Dust Bowl (1933) makes fence posts and barbed wire seem both neglected and menacing as a furious cloud of dust, enflamed by the sun, threatens to engulf everything. In a series of Erosion paintings, Hogue identifies ecological damage closer to home in the landscapes of Texas.
In Mother Earth Laid Bare (1936) the rocky, hilly soil of an abandoned farm near Dallas reveals the contours of a woman’s bare body. The Crucified Land (1939) features a faded scarecrow stands crucified over the red earth of Denton as water begins to eat away at the land, thanks to careless agricultural practices indicated by a far off tractor, plowing along oblivious to the destruction in the foreground.
Hogue spent a good portion of his life in New Mexico and Oklahoma, where he chaired the department of art at the University of Tulsa. Still, the Lone Star State always beckoned.
In his Oil Industry series, Hogue tackled that most iconic of Texas industries. Take Spindletop Runs Wild (1940), which was commissioned by Life magazine to recollect a famous incident at the Spindletop oil field in Beaumont, where in 1901 a gush of oil blew the top off a well. As a cascade of dark liquid launches itself into the sky in a burst of innovation, onlookers calmly watch the oil rain back down. Life published the image in its February 10, 1941 issue.
Houstonians may still mourn its near-miss in the contest to house a defunct shuttle, but there may be some comfort in considering Hogue’s interest in NASA. How not to be inspired by the thrill of space exploration in the early 1970s? Hogue’s Moon Shot series lavishes attention on the same gloriously craggy features that would be at the heart of his Big Bend paintings. There’s something utterly dream-like about the pale blues of Chisos Mountains, Northwest Face (1979) or the fiery reds of Igneous Intrusive Mass, Big Bend (1978).
The vivid and at times hallucinatory coloration of Hogue’s paintings might seem like exaggeration, but these works are perfect embodiments of a visionary artist aspiring to be at one with a landscape at once vulnerable, terrifying, and sublime.
In other words, welcome to Texas.