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On the Work of D.E. May

Originally published as an introduction to The Template Files: Works by D.E. May,  2011

Of all the books on our bookshelf, our 9 month-old son only ever picks out one: D.E. May: The Occupations, a slim, green-covered catalogue from a 2003 show at the Marylhurst Art Gym. The book nearly disappears amid the other glossy titles on our bottom shelf, but his little hands consistently uncover it. Possibly, there is something significant about that. Our child is learning how to be in the world, how to recognize patterns and find constants among all the newness that rushes past him daily. That makes the patterns he develops himself seem all the more profound. Not to mention that, to his parents, his choice of reading material is a shining signifier of his good taste.(1)

Our son’s endorsement is one of many. May’s work has been recognized as an important feature of this region’s artistic anatomy for over three decades. His meticulous constructions, which are often composed from harvested scraps of found wood, cardboard and paper, poetically represent, and at times encourage, the processes of use and reuse. Water-stains, stanzas of crookedly penciled shorthand, the faded blue lines of notebook paper—these become the finishes and foundations of many of May’s creations. His schematics, floor plans and templates are applied to these other marks, creating images that read like incomplete proposals. His works appear indexical in nature, simultaneously pointing backwards to a past lodged in their traces of handwriting and water damage, and forwards, to a potential future where their plans might be carried out in more monumental proportions. However, these opposing arrows equalize. His constructions represent neither evidence of a discernible past nor documented plans for a foreseeable future. They are works about the act of working. They refer to their own production, incomplete as it sometimes may be. They wait for a viewer’s volition to imagine possible futures or fictitious pasts. It is in this waiting that May sees his pieces’ nature completed. In a way, his works pause time. As an observer remarked, while holding one of his assemblages in hand, ‘they look, as if they have always been that way.’

This unaffected quality of May’s artwork, his ability to weave the effects of natural processes seamlessly with the threads of his own artistic additions, is mirrored in his working methods. We have admired May’s process for a longtime. It is his somewhat hermetic approach and his matter-of-fact dedication to the occupation of art as if it was any other mundane form of work that we appreciate. It is as if he was a draftsman or inventor before being an artist. Or, that the effect he has on his materials is just one contribution among many, no more or less revered than the contribution of the worker who oversees the milling of the wood, the writer who scrawls his shorthand, or the machine that corrugates the cardboard. And, while his pieces fit snugly within the history of art, calling up images of Duchamp, Agnes Martin, and Joseph Cornell, they also exist within a less-precisely aesthetic discourse. The templates, pages, collages and three-dimensional notes that make up May’s oeuvre have been constructed not in the mythic space of the artist’s studio but in what he calls a ‘workroom’ or at a combination of various workstations—kitchen tables, writing desks, and spaces of floor. Although we haven’t seen his workroom first-hand, the rumors and photographs depict a collaged space as architecturally interesting and intricately designed as one of his drawings. A hundred cardboard cubby holes are filled with specimens of fabric, cardboard bits, and colored paper arranged according to some idiosyncratic taxonomy and punctuated by the occasional deck of cards, store of ink bottles or jar of screws. The space is an incubator where the gleaned materials are kept and cared for until May hatches them into some new constellation.

In this latest collection of templates and small sculptures, like in much of his past work, May introduces his own patterns to the flattened ghosts of unfolded folds, half-erased crop marks and other life-made patterns that cover his found material. Further, May allows the technical vestiges of his own process, the swatches of color experiments, the guide marks, signatures and penciled notation, to remain as a part of the composition. These dissolve into the chance markings and blend with his larger drawn forms. Perhaps it is the inclusion of these smallest preparatory details that make his pieces seem so indissoluble, as if they were made with ‘the sureness of execution and the inner necessity that is revealed to us by the humblest of shells.’(2) Like prime numbers of form and material, the process and the product are nested together in such a way that they have been rendered irreducible.




1. You might think that any book he picked from our shelves would signify the same, considering that we are presenting him with a pre-selected collection, but that is not true. We don’t think very much of some of the artists whose books line our shelves. May is of course an exception.

2. Paul Valéry. ‘Man and the Seashell.’ In The Collected Works in English, 1968, p.27.

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