Alexandre Hogue, Dust Bowl Landscapes, Hudson River Museum, Sherry French Gallery (1985)
Alexandre Hogue gained national attention in the 1930's with paintings vividly expressive of devastating Dust Bowl erosion of the land. Whether of that period or the 1980's, Hogue's southwestern landscapes, while different in style, have a similar symbolic intensity (Hudson River Museum, Yonkers, through July 31; Sherry French Gallery, 41 W. 57th Street).
In powerful paintings of Texas and Oklahoma like "The Crucified Land," 1939, erosion reveals muscular, serpentine arms of flaming red-orange sub-soil clutching at the deeper bosom of the earth. The later paintings of the Big Bend desert country in western Texas are flatter, glassier, more brittle, seeming to partake of 1980's sharp-focus, intensely-colored realism in contrast to the earlier paintings which anthropomorphize the forms and soul of the land in a style mid-way between Grant Wood's calm precision and Thomas Hart Benton's heaving turbulence. Like both artists, but with his unique approach, Hogue examines nature closely, emphasizing its forms and rhythms in a way that is more a moody synthesis of reality than reality itself.
In "Mother Earth Laid Bare," 1938, Hogue creates the forms of a recumbent woman from the dunes of the eroded land -- a very arresting image -- directly stating what Wood only hinted at in fecund, over-ripe hills and intimate valley clefts.
Hogue expresses concern that this picture may be misunderstood as being based on Grant Wood's "Fall Plowing," since both have unmanned foreground plows paralleling the picture plane and farm landscape beyond. While Hogue's painting was done in 1938 and Wood's in 1931, the artist points out, "I made sketches for 'Mother Earth Laid Bare' in 1926 and '28. I didn't see Wood's picture until I had nearly finished mine. For awhile, it made me feel, 'Why should I bother to finish my painting?'
"But to show how long this idea had germinated in me...my mother worked with me in the garden when I was a child. She was a poetic soul, an artist at a time when women had no chance to be artists. She spoke of the bounty of mother earth, and I imagined this figure under the ground.
"Then I forgot about it. Years later, I learned that the Pueblo Indians have an identical belief. They imagine a woman under the earth fertilized by the sky god. When the mother is pregnant -- the crops are starting to come through the ground -- they put all metal tools away, removing the metal shoes from their horses' hooves.
"My handling of the Dust Bowl group of paintings was absolutely mine. I had a personal way of painting sand dunes, my own way of painting sand around fence posts. The paintings were not photographic, were of no definite place. They were the sum total of many places. I saw the Dust Bowl happen, saw it coming. I was a youthful cowboy in Dalhart, Texas. It was strictly grazing land, the most beautiful you ever saw. It will never be the same again."
Painters like Hogue, Wood and Benton were sensitive to the form and emotional and spiritual resonance of the land, seeking in it not only timeless truths of existence, but an answer to the riddle of their own souls and the disoriented time in which they lived. The land was like a great sphinx, an oracle, the subject of aesthetic and personal ritual and
Hogue speaks of the "terrible beauty" of the ravaged land. And, indeed, he most often depicts it in the erosion paintings as if it is a great, wounded beast, more like a wildly kicking, clawing tiger in its death throes than the silently swooning mother figure. The paintings become metaphors for his own troubled spirit and that of a barren, threatened age.
Interestingly, while the artist's sympathies are obviously directed toward the land, Hogue seems as attracted to the machine and machine-made forms that destroy the land, playing them in mechanistic counterpoint to the earth's sinuously convulsive tragedy.
The phallic plow that rapes "Mother Earth Laid Bare," becomes the tractor that "crucifies the land", becomes the locomotive and gleaming blue steel tracks nearly covered by yellow sand in "Avalanche by Wind," 1944, becomes the precision of oil field valves and piping amidst twisting dunes in "Oil in the Sandhills," 1944, (a painting that caused Bernard Dorival, Director of the Louvre to say in 1961, "At last, this is an American artist").
It may not be too much to say that the precise, man-made objects in Hogue's paintings represent his mind or rationality, while the twisted earth and cloud forms are his emotions, his unconscious. Thus, he creates a rich interplay -- even conflict -- between the two, now emphasizing one, now the other.
There are similarities, in idea if not aesthetics, between Hogue's late desertscapes, with their level, sage-dotted fore and middle grounds and distant horizontal mountain monoliths, and Cezanne's Mont Sainte-Victoire series in their statement of an insistent search for, and discovery of, Self and ultimate union with God in eternal mountain form. While other paintings are quieter, Hogue's "Eroded Lava Badlands, Alpine," 1982, in particular, seems a summation of not only his life-long feelings for the land, but a revelation of the deepest forces of his psyche.
Jagged, metallicized, orange-red rocks, cliffs and mountains rear and roar, thrash and collide in primeval shifts of the earth's crust, while a small area of cotton-soft, rounded clouds is squeezed between flatter, angular clouds and the explosive escarpment below. At the base of this Mt. St. Helens of picture making, is an extremely tiny, saddened farmhouse and windmill somehow surviving (or in imminent danger of destruction by) this mammoth collision of earth gods.
"Eroded Lava Badlands, Alpine" has much in common with "Hondo Canyon Cliffs," painted forty-one years earlier, where the close-up rocks of the picture-filling cliff face are fragmented facets and congealed ribbons of twisted metal more than nature's stone, creating a mechanistic world as horrifying as Fernand Leger's cubist robots in "Nudes in the Forest," 1910.
Where "Hondo Canyon Cliffs" appears to propose a hopeless scenario for mankind and the human spirit, "Eroded Lava Badlands, Alpine" has a central vertical fault line -- an escape clause -- between the grinding concussion of left and right halves of the picture, a line that can be seen as a path from the tiny earthly house to the beatific vision of clouds and nearly angelic attendants. It reminds one of similar themes of earthly transcendence, of pathways from the physical to the spiritual in Van Gogh's "Starry Night," El Greco's "Burial of Count Orgaz," or, for that matter, his "View of Toledo."
Like so many artists of the 1930's who explored the life and land of America, Hogue was increasingly ignored by post-World War II apostles of Abstract-Expressionism. He settled into a life of painting and teaching at the University of Tulsa, exhibiting mainly on a regional basis, while "the museum people who liked my work grew old and retired, to be replaced by younger ones who were completely uninterested in me or my painting."
Dividing time between his home in Tulsa and farm in Oologah, Oklahoma, Alexandre Hogue says, "Artist and farmer are forgotten men as far as Washington is concerned. I'm both."