San Jose ICA Retrospective Reveals an Intimate Relation of Life to Art

by Erin Goodwin-Guerrero

Installation view of Old Technology, including a structure evoking Tony May’s well known T. House and the Variable Construction Bookmobile on loan from the San Jose Museum of Art

Old Technology, the extensive exhibition of painting, sculpture and installations from forty years of Tony May’s work, including many new pieces, opened on November 13, 2010 at the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art. Indeed, Tony May is a world-class artist who imprints an indelible stamp on the Silicon Valley art scene with public art, his unmistakable and charming art, life and persona, these frequently folding almost seamlessly together. Insightful writers that spin words more deftly than myself have written a good deal about the Tony May 40 Year Retrospective.  I refer the reader to an informative and entertaining catalogue essay that includes wonderful biographical details, by Renny Pritikin, currently Director of the Nelson Gallery at UC Davis, and reviews by Ben Marks for KQED Arts, and Laura Cassidy Rogers for Art Practical. From the moment the show opened it has generated a buzz, with those who attended on opening night jamming the ICA galleries to the point that few really saw the show. Many who have seen it once come back twice or more.  Folks immediately bombarded me with email asking if I had seen it, declaring it the best “museum” show in decades, and extolling the artist as a rare local hero.

So yes, it is an important show by an important artist who offers us an example of the irrepressible drive that animates an artist whether or not his work becomes heralded on the world stage.  (At the risk of belaboring an issue of minor importance, I am nevertheless quite taken with the question posed by Italo Scanga, and explored further in Renny Pritikin’s article, “Why Aren’t You Famous, Yet?”). This is not to say that Tony May’s reputation, as an artist, does not reach beyond Northern California, because it does and he has shown some of his best and signature works in venues abroad.  May’s Thai Inspired Portable Display Unit, which emerges from a small suitcase that carried the entire installation to an exhibition at Silpakorn University in Bangkok, is a perfect example.  The display unit is an amalgam of previous displays featuring May’s diminutive realist paintings that typically document the artist’s notable inventions, repairs or discoveries in a quotidian environment, and the recurring art-in-a-suitcase theme.  This work took the exterior form of a building with steeply pitched roof, like a Thai house, and also bore features that evoked Thai temples and other traditional Asian constructions.  From the roof, panels of black canvas are suspended symmetrically to create four viewing stations, one on each side.  The painting featured in each niche then reveals some connection to the Buddha found in his travels in China or around May’s home in San Jose, as in the vision of a Buddha in soapsuds in a washpan in his kitchen sink.  The entire Thai Inspired Portable Display Unit is presented as rising from its open suitcase/carrying case.

Tony May’s Thai Inspired Portable Display Unit

Making Cage Smile

May attributes his love of canvas as a sculptural material to his undergraduate experience in painting.  He found the unstretched canvas every bit as intriguing for its potential in three dimensions as it was as a substrate for a picture.  Canvas, in his Variable Constructions, plays many roles.  His fondness for the spontaneous, the absurd, and the irrational element of chance is very Dada. As evidenced by the small sculpture Making Cage Smile, May clearly admires the approach of John Cage and the unpredictable forms assumed by many of his variable constructions are a response to that attitude. And yet, with his repeated work with suitcases, May demurs on the Duchampian comparisons — they are simply, a convenient, visually apt and easy way to enclose and carry a work of art.  Opening and closing them often affords a way to show how canvas moves and folds.

Antique Toolrack created from recycled tools in May’s workshop

The flavor of Tony May is simplicity, modesty, a wry humor and refusal to admit any inflated meanings to an art that, on the surface, seems to be just the way May presents it — as a straightforward appreciation of the small everyday experiences and revelations we have at home, in the workshop or basement, at a garage sale. Found objects, constructions, repairs and inventions around the home are isolated, perhaps seasoned a bit with Tony May condiments and showcased with pokerfaced aplomb.  May likes recycling.  One example of Tony May style recycling is the aforementioned series of small acrylic paintings that document his home repairs, each one bearing a deadpan hand lettered narrative in the third person below the image.  “A PROJECTING BAY IN THE ALLEY FENCE ACCOMMODATES THE EUCALYPTUS”.  More recycling: May collects and uses old tools for use in his workshop which, in turn, frequently yields an object that stands on its own, such as the Antique Toolrack, composed of a hammer and sickle in a shallow wooden box. He mirthfully recalls, “Every time the hammer and sickle got together, they started talking to each other.”  Refurbished Antique Folding Device is an old wooden ironing board that May declared “underbuilt and too rickety to use,” and was refurbished to give it more strength.  In the process, May recalled “a Duchampian directive to destroy old icons”, and took the notion to stamp “REMBRANDT” into the wood, thinking it would be suitably iconoclastic to iron on top of a Rembrandt.

Tony May’s painting of several of his paintings, documenting several of his sculpture using recycled books, is illuminated by his book lamps

May’s one conceit may be his delight in the letter T and puns that can be made from it.  He calls this “my egomaniacal obsession”.  May’s T. House, in his backyard, is part workshop, Tea house, social center, a venture into Asian joinery and Tony May as architect.  It is probably the largest and most ambitious project of May’s life.  Renny Pritikin asserts, “The T. House in May’s backyard should be considered along with David Ireland’s house as a major Bay Area art icon of the past 25 years.” On display at the ICA is a building that is clearly related in spirit to the T. House but is a much smaller structure specially built to accommodate the installation of the even smaller T. Tree House (The 6′ x 6′ x 6′ cubic room that perches on top, which Tony May built with Lonny Tomono in Hawaii in 1999) as well as to create an operating platform for the Variable Book Construction (Bookmobile) on loan from the San Jose Museum. May’s T. House was at one time furnished with T-shaped cushions that May collected from overstuffed chairs frequently abandoned in the alley behind his house.  Naturally, May created a small painting that documented the T Cushions.

The Old Technology signatory periscope — constructed of metal, plastic mesh, wood, cloth “bellows” and mirrors — that is constructed over the façade of the ICA and ends up in the fireplace hearth inside the ICA entry was intended to recreate a periscope constructed in the San Francisco Capp Street Project that May did with artist Bob Jones during a residency in 1985.  In the original periscope, May found some oddly placed high windows that allowed the entry of light, but no viewing to the outside.  From the chimney in the Capp Street House, May built the periscope that permitted viewers to look down into the hearth, in order to see up an out to the children’s playground across the street.  In San Jose, a series of experiments and trials with plastic mirrors whose distortions gave the project a “funhouse quality” caused several changes of plan.  May ultimately found the right materials and angles, realizing his obsession and determination to allow viewers inside to see upwards and out, through the periscope, toward a T-shaped pattern in the windows of the Sobrato Building several blocks away.  May lamented the futility of attempting to persuade the Sobrato Building’s owners to turn the lights on in a T shaped formation for the evening opening.

Throughout Old Technology, the viewer is treated to versions of Tony May’s work in series: the quirky Variable Constructions, installations and sculpture formed from recycled books, and his small acrylic paintings.  (See ARTSHIFT archives: July 23, 2008, Tony May’s Art: Wit with Economy)

Tony May’s Two Unretouched Photos

The Capp Street Cap

Tony May also plays with his always-understated wardrobe. Two Unretouched Photos is a curious print, and one of several pieces using the cap as part of the unforgettable visage of Tony May. A photo of the artist with a mustache, and wearing a workman’s cap is seen below a photo of an historic figure also with mustache, at the same angle and wearing nearly the same cap.  He says, “The two images are of Frederic Law Olmstead (the landscape designer who laid out NY central Park etc.), and me. The Olmstead photo was taken c. 1860. I discovered it in a book at the library about 1987 and thought it bore an uncanny resemblance to me. I had my friend Dale Leslie photograph me in as close to the same position and attitude as we could manage. The two combined photos were used as the cover image for a magazine called MUMBO JUMBO being put together by Lanning Stern’s graphic design class which was published in 1987.”  There is more:  In the show, a gray workman’s cap that reads Capp Street above the visor, and then, for an auction a couple of years later, the latest and most quintessentially Tony May skull cap, again a gray fabric but without the visor.  A sweater given to Tony by Therese May, well-worn and mended to the point that it is barely recognizable, is neatly folded and presented under plexiglass.  Finally — not really typical Tony attire — there is Two Tea Jugs, a very sassy Pop tee shirt made for a Works Gallery auction, with two teapots painted on the chest: a double or maybe triple duty T!

May’s  Two Tea Jugs:  acrylic paint on tee shirt

Now, to Tony May’s chagrin, I return to that confounding question of why the artist is not yet famous? I ask Tony to bear with me, and my own obsession to understand why wonderful art and artists cannot launch a big apple profile from San Jose, California.  I pose such obvious answers as the lack of commercial galleries, the lack of traditions in art collecting, Wild-West suspicions that the artist is a fraud and second cousin to the welfare cheat.  Tony’s response: “San Jose is not un-nurturing, it’s a myth!  Galleries open and fail everywhere, constantly.  I hear things are not going so well in the San Francisco gallery scene right now.  But, those galleries don’t open as a public service.  Actually, artists disappear in New York, probably in greater proportion than here.  The Triton Museum does a good job for local artists.  That Italo Scanga quote was meant to be a comparison of my career to Bruce Nauman’s.  Artists of a certain generation were driven to go where they could find success.  It was often at the expense of a social life and other important things.  San Jose is about average, about right.”

The Tony May retrospective exhibition runs through February 26, 2011.

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