There are some mysteries in D. E. May’s works now at PDX Contemporary Art through November 28. The first question for many viewers will be “why is this simple little stuff taken seriously?” Second, for those who will take it seriously without hesitation, is “how does this simple little stuff manage to work?”
Take a work like Dutch Furlong, 2015, 2 inches tall by 7 ¼ inches wide. It is just a piece of gray cardboard cut into a backwards “L” with a fat upright. There are a couple pencil lines on the upright, one at a diagonal across the upper left and one vertical at the right quarter. There’s another vertical line at the far left. A few little scars mark the surface, perhaps tracks of previous use. And this little piece is held to the wall by three carefully placed small nails through the cardboard—the nail heads are not driven home, they remain just proud of the surface, little careful sculptural details.
May’s materials are modest—with Dutch Furlong there’s a little piece of cardboard (perhaps found) three pencil lines and three nails. They don’t have the aura of the fine art supply store. Instead they have the aura of old stationery stores (in the pre-Office Depot days) or the junk shop. But these works are not about nostalgia: They may embody some kind of appreciation for things past, things used, things utilitarian, but not wistfulness.
May’s materials often seem to be “used,” that is, salvaged from prior situations. It doesn’t really matter whether they actually are new or used, because they are being utilized in the fiction of art, and how we read the story is what is important. There are painterly surfaces without paint (mainly—there is a little paint sometimes). Cardboard surfaces have their own “painterly” surface qualities.
There is no detectable pretense. There is little to savor like the common demonstrated engagement with material manipulation such as smooshed paint, erasures of graphite, polished bronze. May works within the 20th century tradition of collage/assemblage, the quiet, modest part of the collage tradition with such precursors as Kurt Schwitters and Anne Ryan. But with May we don’t get the commonplace collage features of torn edges or the fragments of headlines and pictures that lead us to everyday events. Yet these works do have the familiarity of the everyday in their materials and common actions, if you happen to use pencils or X-acto knives with a straightedge, or hammer a few little nails.
Each of May’s works expresses care. But they do not embody precision. The cuts are clean and the lines are crisp, but there is no “fine tuning” or “polishing.” We get the feeling of the maker making, with a modest range of modest materials. There is a different, subtle, quiet, serious engagement of the artist and material—you can feel the knife cutting along the straightedge, and the pencil firmly guided along the rule.
I am reminded of the Italian artist Giorgio Morandi whose best known works are the hundreds of softly colored, small still life paintings of bottles, boxes, pitchers and the like—they are the same over and over again, but different. May has a simple materials (instead of images) vocabulary that he manipulates to make new visual meanings. He’s engaged in some kind of extreme purposeful doodling, that is, they don’t seem like they could be serious—yet it is clear that they are serious. May might be thought of as having the touch of someone like Richard Tuttle as he also opts to utilize mundane materials, but unlike Tuttle he foregrounds his sense of exactness. However his “exactness” seems also arbitrary, but arbitrary with clear judgment. It is the precision of that razor blade and the finely sharpened pencil, not of the measurement in millimeters
May’s works require care as well. That is, they need their space to breathe, to assert themselves. Dutch Furlong, this tiny piece, is placed by itself on a large wall of the gallery. Like most of May’s works, it is so quiet that it can’t stand the noise from works placed within peripheral vision. In relation to that, there are a few works in the exhibition framed under glass, and they seem imprisoned by their surrounding boxes. We also have a cabinet of drawers with works and vitrines with displays. They are not without interest, but they feel like curiosities in this context.
Many of May’s works have more parts to them than Dutch Furlong, but they are still tight little objects. There are applied blocks of wood (e.g. Gilliard, or Partial: Langendsand) and some color in works such as Mid Register. It is not that “less is more” (as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe stated)—it is more like “less is inevitable” because these little things don’t need more stuff and incredibly May resists (maybe doesn’t have?) any impulse to add more.So, how does this simple little stuff manage to work? We see how it works for May: with care in every little thing. That is what convinces us to participate. Because of that care we are engaged by the work and the meaning is in the pleasure we derive from the viewing experience.
There’s a different kind of pleasure in seeing May’s works. They are morsels of art, like a haiku is to poetry or a serving of sushi in the realm of food. You will not be sitting through an epic recitation, nor will you feel stuffed after this meal.
But, words are exploration, not explanation.
Soshin hung his head for awhile, pondering the puzzling words of the master. The master said, “If you want to see, see right at once. When you begin to think you miss the point.” (D. T. Suzuki, Zen and Japanese Culture)
Sabina Poole photographed her studio visit with D.E. May for ArtsWatch, part of Connective Conversations | Inside Oregon Art 2011-2014, a collaboration of The Ford Family Foundation and the University of Oregon School of Architecture and Allied Arts.