Growing up in the suburbs of Los Angeles, Victoria May’s creative life sparked at the age of ten when she learned how to make her own clothes. Part drawing and part sculptural construction, sewing requires incredible patience and an obsession for detail. This labor-intensive process, however, is ingrained in May. In every body of work, her instinct returns to it; and textiles, thread, mending, stitching, layering, unraveling etc. serve as material, process and metaphor in her sensitive multi-media works. “Sewing has always stayed a part of my practice. Any problem I have I ask, can I sew it? Can I use thread?” Engaging her masterful hand with the soft and malleable fibers, May creatively untangles the personal and cultural associations of her materials through her art and process.
In her Blouse (2000-2006) and Headgear (2001-2004) series, she created delicate garments and accessories constructed of transparent silk organza and embedded with menacing objects like shards of glass, human hair, thorns, and razor-blades. Rows of sand are impeccably stitched inside Comfort to provide both weight and warmth to a see-through shirt; chicken vertebrae stitched down the back of Exposure suggest fragility; and in the Worrier, small pebbles suspend inside a head cap like cancerous growths. While we wear clothing to identify who we are or who we aspire to be, May’s skin-like garments externalize the unconscious communication contained in the body itself, complete with its scars, sadness, imperfections and stunning beauty.
May’s conceptual and material vocabulary deepen in her next body of artwork, Residuum (2009). In these richly layered sculptures and wall pieces, May responds with poetic force to the collateral damage of war. She asks, “At what point do institutional contortions to defend and protect begin to degrade our environment both inside and out?” May again combines familiar materials, but in this case, it is to provoke a sense of anxiety, ambiguity and urgency. Works like Spare, Collateral Damage and Artery Study are held tenuously together by blood-red thread, as if on the brink of falling apart. In Artery Study, the red thread crawls outside of the perimeter of its concrete quadrant, either to escape the suffocation of the dense material or perhaps to spread and proliferate. Made of materials like mud-stained organza, poured concrete, silk thread, army blankets and industrial detritus, the works in Residuum hover with haunting uncertainty between life and lifelessness.
In her most recent body of work, Designed for General Use (2010) May inserts a healthy dose of levity to her practice and shifts her observations to the systems, objects and minutiae of our everyday lives. With their neat construction of straps, buckles, chords and pockets, the Utililty Panel series appear deceivingly familiar and functional. Utility Panel #3: The nature of public health risks has changed, includes canvas straps to hold first-aid bandages as well as cases for a gun and ammunition. The formal absurdity of its design (do we even want to think about the circumstances that would require it?) is only heightened by the meticulous William Morris inspired floral stitching on the back of the panel. Other works are seamlessly integrated into the architecture of the gallery space, only to serve unknown purposes: a metal tube juts out of a wall to spew long intestinal forms made out of silk organza in Less consequential leak; and in Open Cage wire spirals out of a wall in the shape of a hoop skirt or slinky toy. Together, these odd and disparate elements comment on the infinitely bizarre things “designed for general use” that we have managed to produce in our post-industrial world. Along with the diagrams and mass-produced found objects she presents, however, May still revels in the hand-made imperfections of things, as if yearning for a simpler time. In presenting her assemblages, objects and architectural interventions, May seems to be winking at us and saying isn’t all of this so wonderfully beautiful and strange?
From garments to abstract assemblages and to formal “utility panels,” May’s tactile works evoke a sense of effortlessness and familiarity. Inspired by her everyday observations of the world around her, she combines humble materials like hard concrete with supple thread, or the transparent weave of silk organza with the cold surface of steel to illustrate a palpable tension. Life is a balancing act and May distills its moments, emotions and complex systems into objects of oppositional fields. Vibrating between vulnerability and strength; darkness and light; or femininity and masculinity; the works ultimately speak to the tender predicament of the human condition.
First published in Rydell 2010-2011 Visual Arts Fellows, copyright © 2011 The Museum of Art & History @ the McPherson Center support for this publication was provided by the Rydell Visual Arts Fund at Community Foundation Santa Cruz County