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Tony May @ b. sakata garo

A Collection of Cat Whiskers 

Tony May belongs to that rarest of breeds: a conceptualist who makes things that can be admired as much for how they’re built as for what they say.  His exquisitely crafted wood sculptures – oddball creations that veer between the practical, the absurd and the pointedly critical — call forth an archetype that once defined a certainstrain of the national character: the backyard tinker/inventor.  There are many versions of it.  The one I think of in relation to May is Steve Jobs, a guy so obsessed with perfection that he demanded that the insides of every Apple device be built to the same exacting aesthetic standards as the parts that users touched.   


Demographic differences aside, May, 74, appears to have been cut from similar cloth.  His story begins in 1942 on a farm in Wisconsin where, before departing for art school and rooming with Bruce Nauman, he learned from his family the fine points of carpentry. Somewhere along the line he also developed the belief that making functional objects wasn’t enough.  One’s work had to be meticulously crafted, which is to say, built so that no surface could be said to have been unconsidered or untouched by human hands.
Intimations of this imperative appeared everywhere in May’s 45-year retrospective at the San Jose ICA in 2010 where all aspects of his oeuvre — painting, sculpture, and installations – were well represented.  What the exhibit didn’t show was how that ethos took hold.  Here, in this beautifully installed exhibit of mostly current work we catch a glimpse.  It comes in the form of a scale model of a sliding barn door that won May’s father and

Thai-Inspired Portable Art Display Unit, 2007

uncle a U.S. patent in 1923.  The contraption, May explains in an accompanying text, was the forerunner of the sliding door employed in today’s minivans.  The brothers probably could have demonstrated the utility of it without much fuss.  Instead, they went all-out, fabricating mechanical parts and giving the stationary elements a finely calibrated patina, as if to show how such a barn so equipped might hold up under actual working conditions.  From it, you can see how May became the artist he is today.

Evidence of this too-much-is-never-enough sensibility is embedded across the full range of his output. It includes scale models for gallery-sized pieces of architecture known as T Houses; dioramas populated by tools and decorative objects fashioned out of cat whiskers; Dada-influenced sculptures; photorealistic paintings, and, most notably, art exhibits that collapse into a suitcase.  The one on view here is called Thai-Inspired Portable Art Display Unit
(1965).  It was the highlight of the ICA show, and it’s the highlight of this one.  Built of wood, canvas, string and wing nuts, it folds out into a pagoda with compartments beneath the “eaves” for displaying paintings.  May built it to solve a practical problem: how to hand carry an exhibition to Bangkok without incurring undue expense?  Duchamp’s Boîte-en-valise is clearly a precedent.  So, too, is Ming Dynasty furniture whose glue- and nail-free joinery made it easy to disassemble for quick transport.  May extended this “collapsible construction” approach to smaller valises.  They function as sight gags, opening to reveal nothing but expanses of fabric: raw canvas in one instance, a swatch of plaid in another.  Pokes, in other words, at Minimalism and geometric abstraction. 
May engages in a lot of art-historical dialog.  While the character of it sometimes seems whimsical, it often carries deep undercurrents of the waste-not-want-not philosophy he acquired growing up in the shadow of the Great Depression.  For example: His use of cat whiskers to make paint and shaving brushes feel, with their mirrored glass enclosures, like low-budget ripostes to Koonisan excess.  So does Semi Elegant Candelabrum.  Built from a bobbin, cable spools, an ice bucket and a bushel basket stacked up in the manner of a layer cake, it

Table of Contents II

looks like something Liberace might have set next the piano had he been a rural bluesman and not a Vegas dandy.  For No Gucci Lantern IV, May bent coat hangers into Noguchi-like curves and topped them with a shopping bag to make a lamp, an act of sculptural imagination and Wileyesque wordplay meant to demonstrate the slender difference between luxury goods and studio detritus. Table of Contents II, a swipe at media culture, turns the picture tube of a large-screen TV into an anamorphic window.  Through it we see a collage of book pages, each titled “Table of Contents.” Yet because of how the pages overlap and how the strange optics of the glass send a fog-like glare lapping out from the edges, the words are unreadable. Orwellian overtones hang in the air.  

Painting occupies a substantial part of the show, and it’s not because May is great painter, but because his depictions of banal scenes of home improvement serve as a visual diary, a record of small victories, which when taken as a group, show May, in the manner of David Ireland, collapsing the distance between art and life.  Like Ireland, May the painter, valorizes the recording of blunt facts, which when accumulated, outline the contours of his day-to-day existence: patching holes, fixing leaks, making art, mending fences, remodeling kitchens and so on.  The result is a highly cultivated anti-aesthetic: paintings rendered in

The Hinged Speaker V-M Speaker Locked in its Out-Facing Position, 2015, a/c on masonite, 9 x 9"

 harsh, unforgiving light with high contrast, glossy surfaces and tonalities reminiscent of pulp fiction book covers.  They’re borderline lurid and not easy to like, but there oddly appropriate to May’s self-assigned documentary task. 

As I left  the gallery I heard, echoing in my head, words Renny Pritikin wrote on the occasion of May’s ICA show:  “Why isn’t this guy famous?”  Why, indeed.  If this show (and the one before it at the ICA) were linked to a seismograph, curators within a 100-mile radius would be feeling tremors beneath their feet. While you’re waiting for for said tremors to strike, I have a suggestion: see May’s work for yourself.
Tony May @ b. sakata garo through April 2, 2016

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