ARTICLE WYATT ALLGEIER
WELCOME TO THE FIRST INSTALLMENT OF THE SPACE, A WEB-SERIES IN WHICH DIFFERENT TEAMS OF ARTISTS, CURATORS, AND VIDEOGRAPHERS ARE PAIRED TOGETHER IN THE PURSUIT OF UNDERSTANDING SPACE. THE ARTIST'S STUDIO SERVES AS THE LOCUS OF THESE PORTRAITS, IN THE HOPE OF ELUCIDATING THE MANY WAYS IN WHICH SPACE INSPIRES, RESTRICTS, AND COMMUNICATES WITH THE CREATIVE PROCESS. WE ARE THRILLED TO HAVE THE MULTIDISCIPLINARY ALEXANDER MAY AS OUR FIRST SUBJECT. WITH A VIDEO BY JORDAN BACKHUS AND AN IN-DEPTH INTERVIEW WITH ALEXANDER MAY BY THOR SHANNON, VMAN BRINGS THE ELUSIVE STUDIO VISIT TO YOUR SCREEN. TAKE A LOOK AT ALEXANDER MAY'S GORGEOUS RIDGEWOOD STUDIO AND THEN READ BELOW FOR A PROVOCATIVE DIALOGUE CONCERNING SPACE, SOUND, LANGUAGE, AND THE BODY.
[I arrive at Alexander May’s studio in Ridgewood, and we begin talking about the collection of ephemera lying around his studio. Mementos and disparate materials litter the space, giving it a worn-in quality that is ripe for artistic experimentation. We begin chatting about the objects sitting on his work desk.]
THOR SHANNON: I like that you have this [gestures to a book about Lucio Fontana] and this [a computer print out of Plato’s The Allegory of the Cave].
ALEXANDER MAY: Yeah, that Fontana book is the one book I have in here.
TS: Why Fontana?
AM: For me, the rougher paintings he was doing are so fucking beautiful. I’ve been doing a lot of scratch work myself in this new series of scratch paintings I’ve started. I just really like the form; where he is moving through is really stunning to me. These collaged works, you know, they’re not the specific slice stuff that is more well known. Anyway, the text paintings over here are generated with and by the concerns of my relationship to language. How we look at language and how it makes people reconsider that space. I have my own writing practice that I use to make the works. I decided upon these strip pieces, because they were the same size as a threshold of a doorway, so they are part of this really basic architectural context. I make the works using these strips, which are done in high-gloss spray enamel. I then use these sequences of an alphabet I made a long time ago, which are built out of these bars that I made probably five years ago. When I first made the alphabet it was constructed of 23 characters, not 26 characters…
AM: Because it was done out of memory. I’m dyslexic so I have a very complicated relationship to language and the form of a letter. It’s like material to me; it’s not really anything else more than that. So I started using them on these strips and using this high-gloss spray enamel paint to go over them. Then I release the bars and then rearrange them, so they’re rendered illegible. It turns into more of a pattern, a sound-based connection to how we read, are reading, glossing over, not glossing over, instead of a space in which I am simply pushing my voice as a writer, or as an artist. That’s not really a space I was interested in. It was more about how we are looking, how we understand language when it is right in front of you—very direct or not. Then leaving those works and moving into more open channels of making tone vibrations, doing printmaking, finding different ways of creating generative spaces. As part of my drawing practice, I started condensing the lines over her so they’re vertical and horizontal at the same time, so it’s not as legible. I started thinking about it with these rubber paintings. This is super thick industrial rubber. The color is related to these other red paintings I was making. I fell in love with this color, because whenever you touch it, it takes on that touch. Once you go in, there is really no coming back, there is no place for erasure…
TS: What instrument do you use?
AM: A finger, a nail…I mainly draw with this crystal I’ve has since I was 18. I found it in New Mexico years ago and it gives a really beautiful mark. Sandpaper as well. I was really interested in that commitment, in not being able to take something away and having to deal with what’s there. At certain times it would turn into these silver works, which are more gestural.
TS: What’s the material laid on top of the rubber?
AM: That’s a really high-grade industrial silver enamel paint that I had about seven cans of after I found them on a job around six years ago. I had just been carrying them around forever, since I never really considered myself a painter or had that connection to paint. The silver is nice because it changes at different times; over time it gets a bit more matte or glossy. The silver was more of a neutral space for me to be in, instead of holding a connection to color or another charged material. I wanted to keep my palette pretty basic. Silver is more connected to architecture, though also campy in a way I liked.
TS: What about the rust color? You said that it related to another red that you had in your earlier works, but what’s the significance of that?
AM: I liked how earth-bound the color was. It is an aggressive and strong color, and also very grounded.
TS: The rust color appears almost like what the silver color would turn into over time, given the process of oxidation that other metals might go through. It’s as if the two are a kind of before and after of each other.
AM: I’m interested in breaking down these categories, in not letting anything ever become stable. For instance, I’m currently working on a sound piece that’s built using 26 different glasses, all toned into half tones using different amounts of water in each. Each glass represents a different letter of the alphabet, so I’m able to write with sound. The sound components there relate to my paintings and larger installations, with their shared aural focus. I can play the notes from my computer, each different note or letter. I can show you. They sit in this really amazing vibrational zone.
TS: It’s like sonic calligraphy.
TS: It seems as though language is pretty fundamental to your practice. Do you think that interest in language stems directly from your dyslexia?
AM: I think it is generated from my particular experience of language, but I also think it is something that’s accessible in a multitude of different ways. It was definitely a challenging place for me to be inside of. The use value and non-use value of language, for me, came from the way I grew up and who I was. The essential point, though, is that language is a material to me.
TS: When I see language rearranged or destabilized, it leads to a deconstruction of something that otherwise feels completely integral. I don’t think of language in such a material way until and unless a break is introduced, which exposes the illusion of it all. That materiality you mentioned is emphasized when you reconstruct letters in your practice, or when you arrange them in haphazard combinations on a painting. When you do that, suddenly those letters develop a heaviness, both for me and other viewers, that they might not otherwise possess.
AM: Yes. I look at letters like symbols. There is a lot of energy that is put toward creating a word, or a letter, or a positioning of these shapes. There is a lot there. It can be very light, but also very heavy, depending on how they are used or approached or positioned. I want to break that all apart and change its consumption.
TS: Words seem, in many ways, so immutable. They are these constructed and finished things, and often we don’t even think about the letters constituting them. It’s like seeing a building and not having to take into account all of the bricks it comprises. When you think of things in a more atomistic way, you start to see the building blocks. Your deconstruction of the alphabet, and of language by proxy, is an operation of revealing those building blocks to viewers.
AM: Totally. The length of language is also something I’ve been thinking about recently. I am thinking about the actual length of a sentence, as one might be composed by letters—these physical things. How long would a book be if every word, every letter, were laid out on one page? How does the physicality of language take up space, or not take up space?
TS: The physicalizing of it underscores the abstract nature of language, how it is all just made up. It’s an abstraction. It is the most fundamental abstraction of humanity.
AM: There is a lot of projection.
TS: You mentioned the symbolic nature of language earlier. Ultimately letters are just symbols. They are just these marks that we make in order to communicate with one another and that mark-making is something…
AM: That we’ve been doing forever. It is so crazy to me that these 26 fucking things are what we’ve all decided on to construct meaning. I mean we are all communicating in a vast majority of ways now and we always have been, but I’m truly interested in the fact that this is the mode that makes sense for everybody, that this is the most we’ve decided to adopt.
TS: The symbolic nature of mark-making, which you mentioned, seems to relate to your most recent works, because they seem very much about these abstract gestures, these fundamental marks. It’s more elemental than the intellectualized alphabet that we use, but both are forms of mark-making—of communication—nonetheless.
AM: [Alex plays half-tones of glasses corresponding with alphabet against the hum of the studio]. I’ve also been thinking about the shape of language, in a more circular rather than linear way. I mean, what does language encompass? This is the recording device slash keyboard player that I made up. Feel free to write something if you want.
TS: Endless fun. I could do this for hours.
AM: Yeah, it’s crazy. It came out of a dream for me. I made it with this guy in Vienna. I was like, “can this be connected to my keyboard?” And he was like, “that is totally possible, I have a patch for that, no problem.” It was unreal! I can show you some of these drawings I made too, if you want?
TS: Yes, please.
AM: These are at the beginning of that process of printing. They are all self-generative, within the very page.
TS: How are they self-generative? Are they mirror images?
AM: Yeah, they flip back and forth on each other and sometimes in the middle. One action will repeat itself and then be reconfigured, drawn inside of. It has a lot to do with eyes.
TS: How do you mean?
AM: They come up a lot. I draw them quite often, in my paintings as well sometimes. [Pointing] Here are two eyes with some glasses…here are some faces…this is a nose… there is a mouth…
TS: What’s the material?
AM: I use black India ink and some black pastels, graphite, and then sometimes there is black tempera paint throw in also.
TS: Some of them are much more figurative than others. The ones that are more abstract are almost hauntingly abstract as a result, because it feels like there was something figurative in them once, which you can no longer really discern…Other than Fontana, who are some other artists or figures in general that you’ve been drawn to?
AM: For a long time I was really connected to Brion Gysin. He started this process called the cut-up method, where he would take newspaper clippings and then rearrange a whole text page, thereby placing it into a whole different spectrum. That, for me, was a really generative space for my own text paintings. The way he dealt with and thought about language has been very influential. His Dream Machine. His collages. I would say that Fontana is mainly there for me on a visual level.
TS: Where did you study?
AM: I went to undergrad at the Art Institute of Chicago and then I went to Bard for my MFA. I was concentrated in sculpture at both institutions. After Bard, though, I began putting things on the wall. And yet, sculpture is now starting to come around again too—like this piece over there, that independent column. That was one solid column that I’ve had for a long time and then I rearranged it with these pots. I’ve been thinking about other ways of creating communal spaces of language, large communities, larger pots of soup. How do I tune those? How do I put them side by side? What exists between them? Over here, I have these tuning forks which are all related to the body. Each is labeled with a different organ—bladder, muscles, blood, kidney, liver, brain, fat cells, lungs, intestines, colon, gall bladder, pancreas, and stomach. I’m currently working on a set of sculptures using these.
TS: What’s the relationship between each one and the body part it is associated with?
AM: They are used for sound vibration healing. Basically, you vibrate that sound over the part of your body that it is associated with, and that will create a vibrational, healing effect regarding that organ.
TS: Can you show me? Do they work?
AM: Yeah, I just got them yesterday, so I don’t really know. But they are actually really beautiful if you just listen to them [bangs one on table and hold up to ear]. I mean it is strong, you know. That is the blood heal…
TS: Thank you, I need my blood healed. Who knows what’s in there?
AM: [laughter]. Yeah, exactly. They are quite tonal and really strong, so it is quite beautiful to me.
TS: Yes, and the relationship to the body is really fascinating.
AM: This will be connected to these cylindrical pillars of blue-dyed resin, and then these forks will be stuck in them, all attached to this sort of elevated, gridded plane. The stomach is quite great—you feel it right?
TS: Yes! Those are really cool. I’ve seen tuners before, but never ones that are related to the body.
AM: They’re helping me respond to the human connection to, and experience of, music. An experience of vibrations, an experience of noise, are together so connected to the human body at its most fundamental level.
TS: I’ve been thinking a lot more about the body recently, which is something I feel fell out of vogue in the art world for a long time. In the 90’s, art had a much greater focus on the body. With the expansion of the Internet, however, the conversation shifted more towards certain immaterial processes, like how we process information, and how that information processing is affecting how we act and interrelate and communicate on a really abstract level. All these ideas are in the cloud, literally. I’ve been thinking recently about what that means for the body—how we still have these bodies, which are heavy and exist in space, that are being left behind in this conversation. At this point, most of our lives take place outside of our bodies, you know?
AM: Thoughts and ideas and perceptions, along with what we are looking at, are all projections. We are all interacting on these different mental waves, and losing what we are physically endowed with as a result.
TS: So much technology from the past decade has been occurring in the cloud, but now with Google Glass or various other technologies that have been introduced recently, it’s becoming so localized to the body. Have you heard of the Singularity?
TS: It’s this terrifying but very real idea. There are all of these venture capitalists in Silicon Valley who are working toward the Singularity, which is the moment when humans and machines merge on a biological level. In a sense we’ve already reached that, because there are people with prosthetics. The idea that you can have certain technological enhancements built into your body, like super sight or…
AM: That’s crazy. My glasses aren’t even 20/20. I don’t want to see the world in 20/20. They’re like 18/20. Super-sight would freak me out.
TS: Or like night vision, thanks to a chip planted in to our brains.
AM: That is wild.
TS: It has been wild for me to think about the body, and its “sponge-ness,” you know? We are so penetrable, so vulnerable.
AM: Yes, but bodies are also really resistant. If you treat it well, the physical body is an incredibly resilient organism. It fights for survival, constantly, daily. It filters, structures,…
TS: But you have both of those acting as foils to one another: penetrability and durability simultaneously. All of those things are in relationship with one another.
AM: I think about that a lot. To go back to the text paintings, I was asking myself, What does it mean to give somebody something to read? What does it mean to put something in front of someone, with their particular connection, or mood, or level of interest in this or that or whatever. As a maker, putting work in front of someone is a big step; it’s a huge responsibility. I think if a piece can engender a kind of self-awareness in its viewers, then it’s a successful piece. To be reminded of your body, of your consciousness, is an important thing. That’s all you can really ask of people these days.
VIDEOGRAPHER/DIRECTOR JORDAN BACKHUS PHOTOGRAPHY DAVID CERAMI INTERVIEW THOR SHANNON VIDEO MONTAGE JAKE HONIG PRODUCTION WYATT ALLGEIER SPECIAL THANKS VICTORIA HOWE, SPENCER TAYLOR, NATASHA STAGG, ROXANA PEREZ-MENDEZ