by Hanna Hannah

Victoria May’s solo show, Residuum (her first in San Francisco at the Don Soker Gallery) is a seemingly inexhaustible elegy to Exhaustion. Like those ancient lyricists, Sheherezade and Ariadne, May is an indefatigable weaver of narratives that are urgently driven by a sense of sheer survival as they are also embedded in the residual fissures of a depleted world in which humanity’s endurance and sustainability – both emotional and literal—hang by a thread.

Spare by Victoria May

For, in fact, one of the most dominant materials in May’s work is thread. In Spare, Collateral Damage, Artery Study, and several other pieces, dark-red thread nakedly performs as Blood. But because as viewers we are made to apprehend it simultaneously as “thread” and “blood,” we are shuttled back and forth (as it were) narrowly between the opacity of material presence and translucent metaphor.

Spare, which consists of a rectangular box—is it a vintage Army medical field box? A magician’s box? A mini coffin?—whose lid gapes open theatrically, allows the viewer to peer inside: Resting on a layer of army blanket and precariously placed at the edge of the “stage” is an anatomical heart made roughly out of dark gray leather and frantically stuffed to bursting with that ruby-red thread. It is hideous. And it is incredibly poignant in its Heart understudy role as “spare.” This is one of the most riveting and loaded works in the exhibition because it concentrates some of the dominant concepts and overriding tenor of May’s work: Spare combines both the fragility in the liminality of all experience with a Brechtian abduction of palliative illusion. This is a “heart” that continues to throb, however bathetically, as if beating in the breast of Beckett’s Clov or Hamm (in Endgame), or Vladimir, Estragon, and Pozzo (in Waiting for Godot).

May’s Bed is made of rusted steel and organza.

Among other outstanding pieces is Bed, with its oxymoronic combination of materials (also typical for most of May’s work) such as rusted steel and silk organza that has been “embroidered” roughly with a delicate pattern in an almost invisible pale thread. In this installation Bed has been propped up against a corner: its skeletal spring coils gesture unevenly within its gossamer container of silk creating an undulating surface that only the most desperately exhausted could consider a resting place were it placed horizontally on the floor. But standing against the wall, tilting precariously, to this viewer it provocatively evoked Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc, about as defiant, albeit in its deflated, non threatening, and eloquently lyrical presence.

Consumerism by Victoria May

It is not possible to do complete justice to a show as richly complex as this one. I have left out discussion of many of the pieces in the show which evince a bravura in the choice and combination of materials and processes such as embroidery, poured concrete, organza, glassine, silk, nails, beads, etc. Almost all of the wall pieces have a miniature scale and the explicit imagery of landscapes, weeds, buried ‚Äútreasure,‚Äù etc., all convey a dystopic sense of suffocation and entrapment. When we look at Consumerism, (one of a group of four pieces titled Opportunism, Isolationism, and Separatism‚Äîmaking up what are seemingly four of our ongoing deadly global sins) we can detect a silk pouch covering what perhaps we first think of as ancient treasure; but on closer inspection the tiny steel fragments allude possibly to the detritus of industry, and by association, war. We are lead into these smaller landscape pieces through the allures of Romantic esthetic deeply programmed into our collective perceptions. But May soon sets us straight: The traditional, culturally-conditioned illusions that persist and continue to misguide us are exhausted: what remains is the eponymous Residuum — a darkly fierce yet friable expression of survival and caritas. We can‚Äôt go on. We must go on.

Victoria May, Residuum, at Don Soker Gallery 49 Geary, San Francisco
August 12th to September 27th

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