By Ann Elliott Sherman, June, 2008

Last Friday night on the edges of J-town, the metal doors of Empire Seven Studios rolled up to admit lucky visitors to the temporary lair of the Thundercats, four San Jose artists who work out of studios in the Citadel: Ben Alexy, Michael Boldrey, Will Clark and Matteo Serna. The vibe was easy, positive and free of pretense, the work definitely worth making an appointment to see. Demonstrating considerable chops while incorporating idiosyncratic personal or cultural references into their paintings and drawings, these ‘cats are not too cool to show they enjoy what they do, and it’s contagious.

Heroically, the Thundercats pledge to each other and the battle of/with art.

One of Ben Alexy’s huge oils, Cycle Shematic (sounds like the title of a Beastie Boys cut) is positioned like the studio bouncer, the first and last thing you see. In this 2006 piece and the 2007 Detroit, Alexy plays both tight and loose, graywashing over text in the background, with a lone figure in a realist vein front and center. The latter work also engages in vertiginous shifts of perspective, with an overlay of what looks like an aerial outline map on top of the wash/text field, juxtaposed with the ground-level view of a dead horse in the foreground. The effect is a painted equivalent of cinematic jump cuts run in slo-mo. Here, the text is excerpted from a short story the artist described as being about a lifelong sailor on a landlocked voyage of self-discovery—autobiographical allegory?

As accomplished as these canvases are, I was seduced by the lucidity of the most recent in Alexy’s series of graphite-on-paper portraits, Heidi Wiskowski Demonstrates the Acceptance of the Calling. In these drawings on outsized white paper, the subjects appear floating free of any context whatsoever, yet firmly moored in their own reality, telegraphed by their attire and the single, well-chosen object they hold. Ms. Wiskowski crouches in her flip-flops, glancing up from the task at hand: pulling out a flower most would be happy to find in their garden, which beyond her grasp fades from detail into curving lines suggesting an Art Nouveau border. Her expression, simultaneously direct, self-contained and ever so faintly skeptical yet accepting, has the calm undercurrent of an interrupted master. Belying beauty proscriptions against fresh air and sun, the faint lines in her glistening face and unmanicured feet indicate another level of the title’s meaning. Alexy’s demonstrated literary affinity becomes a visual poem about work and life.

Michael Boldrey heroically updates Botticelli with a series of paintings titled Woman where forward-floating figures set against otherwise unpopulated backdrops reveal lots of leg and a certain flair for chicly retro fashion. They are both romantically idealized and exactingly rendered. My favorite of these features a wild-maned, wingless angel ascendant in a terrifically luminous sky, as if her boots were made for walking a runway in heaven. Boldrey’s bravura takes a backseat in smaller, offhand portraits that reveal more about their subjects—the eyes of the OshKosh-clad old soul Liam could pierce the hardest heart.

Working in vivid oils, Will Clark’s trip-hop panels could produce a contact high. The Sad Deer in a Holodeck looks lost, not even turning to freeze in the headlights of an encroaching car, the deeply blue-green scene pixelating into a high-def mosaic suggesting the digital feed is on the fritz. The aptly named No Turn Left Unstoned deftly captures vibrant, chemically enhanced perceptions of that suburban pastoral, the football field, right down to the halos surrounding the floodlights. While flows is the operative word for the golden hues of Flows Like a River of Bass Vibrations, here the female figure in the foreground feels sampled, like a reverse negative refugee from an iPod ad.

Smack dab in the middle of the exhibition, Matteo Serna’s portraits of his fellow Thundercats are, in some ways, the heart of the show as well as its heartstopper. In each, the subject has a crinkly, semi-opaque shopping bag over his head. Although the suicidal connotation is hard to avoid, the images aren’t grisly, and Serna’s treatment rises above mere ironic device. These are not generic portraits of the Unknown Artist as a young man. It’s as if he performs the same revelatory slight of hand someone like Lucian Freud does when using friends and family as models, only Serna doesn’t show his pals awkwardly sprawled and naked. Obscuring their features, paradoxically Serna highlights the individuality of each by echoing some characteristic of their work. Text surfaces in Ben, annotating the painting’s hypnotic interplay of purple and red, instructing “put aside” and “keep simple.” Will makes the viewer hyperaware of the bag’s crumpled texture with each broad brushstroke. Mike accentuates the play of light on the bag, which is worn sideways, pulling tighter than the others. The way each portrayed artist’s head strains against the boundary imposed between their life and what sustains it defines them. This unsentimental homage to friendship rises to the level of tour de force.

Like their cartoon namesakes, each of the Thundercats uses their unique powers or weapons of choice for the greater good. What’s refreshing is their coupling of artistic ambition with a refusal to lose sight of what drew them to art in the first place. Feel the magic, hear the roar!

Thundercats —Ben Alexy, Michael Boldrey, Will Clark and Matteo Serna—at Empire Seven Studios [525 N. 7th St., San Jose; through June 13, by appointment only, 408.668.4434]

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