Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - August 17, 2012

Larger than life

Art is a jump and a joust for young painter

by Maytal Mark

It's no wonder that painting feels like a sport for Ben Alexy. The young Palo Alto artist's mastery of massive 10-foot canvases can demand some serious physical activity.

"The larger it is, the more it feels like I'm engaging in something that's really physical, like moving around and flipping the panels," Alexy says in a recent interview in his paint-spattered San Jose studio. "I like being up and moving and working, sweating."

This larger-than-life scale supports the message behind his art. "You can create this world that you can fall into, that wraps around you like an atmosphere," he says. "A lot of my paintings are about finding particularities about the way we are as human beings and trying to present that on a grand, monumental scale. That's how I feel about human beings in general; just being alive can be a very heroic thing."

This spirit is evident in his paintings, like "The Joy of Life," which depicts a man in modern clothing passionately wielding a sword against a medieval jouster. The drama of the action is upstaged only by the towering 9-foot frame of the painting.

This and several more of Alexy's pieces have been chosen by Stanford Art Spaces for an exhibit running through Sept. 6 on campus along with watercolor, ink and mixed-media works by Valerie P. Cohen; and paintings by Kyungsoo Lee. Marilyn Grossman is the program's longtime curator.

Originally a photography major at San Jose State University, Alexy found painting indirectly. "I was in the (photography) program for two years and I never felt like I could quite find a voice," Alexy says. "It felt like all the images I was coming up with felt forced or contrived or naive in some way."

For a prerequisite art course, Alexy chose painting.

"The more time I spent doing it, the more I felt like I was finding that voice I was looking for in photography," he says. "All that training I had in photography really influenced how I come up with my compositions."

Today, Alexy's work is based on photographs he takes himself. "I have all those photos of helicopters blowing up," he says, pointing to a collection of five or six photographs pinned on the studio wall. "I'll spend months doing preliminary work that's all photo- and drawing-based, then I move onto this." Alexy gestures to a giant painting of a helicopter exploding in midair, his most recent project.

His pursuit of scenes to depict has taken him to some interesting places. For his painting "Detroit," Alexy went out seeking a horse falling down that he could photograph. He tried the steeplechase tracks in south San Jose, but many owners informed Alexy that their horses never fell. Eventually he found a ranch with horses that were all too eager to roll in the dirt. The owner gladly brought them out.

"She knew their personalities so well that she could tell just by how they were pacing when they were going to drop and roll, so she was counting down for me," Alexy says. "The horse would drop and I would drop because I wanted to get the shot from ground level. I'd be down in the dirt taking sequence shots while the horse is flying back and forth and there's dirt flying everywhere."

"Detroit" now depicts one of those horses as part of the Stanford exhibition. It's an unusual image for Alexy.

"That's probably the only painting that I've ever done that's even slightly political," he says. "The horse is like horsepower, like the car industry in Detroit. It's kind of a statement about people's idea of their own home or the U.S. as a nation, as an economy or as a world power. It's this really beautiful, strong, elegant thing that no one really ever expects to collapse or fail. Even people who owned the horses were completely appalled at the idea that their horse would ever not be on its feet."

Recently, much of Alexy's art has carried this theme, including his most recent exploding-helicopter painting.

"A helicopter, especially a military helicopter, is something that is powerful, sophisticated, complex, utilitarian. But at the same time, helicopters are incredibly fragile; one thing goes wrong and it goes spinning out of control," Alexy says.

The artist shares his studio in San Jose with his girlfriend, Ashley, and has made his space very much his own, from the paint on the floor to the photographs that inspire his work pinned on the walls. Born and raised in San Jose, he now lives in Palo Alto, his home of about four years. He frequently commutes by bicycle; his other job is at a bike shop doing repairs and fittings.

Motion is big not only in Alexy's daily life but also in his artwork. "I grew up looking at skateboard magazines and that's what you always saw, these very dramatic, still frames of something that you know is extremely dynamic and totally time- and motion-based," he says.

Part of Alexy's narrow focus on the action of his paintings is his omission of a specific location. The backgrounds are often simple colorful backdrops, what he calls "an ethereal area" that the characters exist in. "What I've decided now, and it may change, is that I'm not interested so much in the physical context as the event, almost like a fable or a myth where you present this one scene that's all about the action and not so much where it is."

When asked about his inspirations, Alexy is quick to name Joseph Mallord William Turner as well as Norman Rockwell. "I love to look at American realism and landscapes, and figurative painting," he says. "There's an honesty in it that you don't find in abstract work."

Like many young artists, Alexy notes that he can't depend on his art for financial support, which is why he has another job. Still, he continues to follow the tradition of the starving artist.

"I get by," he writes later in an email. "I make it work because without it I would be dead inside."

What: Large paintings by Palo Alto artist Ben Alexy are on display with works by Valerie P. Cohen and Kyungsoo Lee at Stanford Art Spaces.

Where: The art is displayed mostly in the Paul G. Allen Building, with some works in the David Packard Building and the Psychology office in Jordan Hall at Stanford University.

When: Through Sept. 6, with the art viewable weekdays from 8:30 a.m to 5 p.m.

Cost: Free

Info: Go to http://cis.stanford.edu/~marigros/ or call 650-725-3622.

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