tommy may :: chaos from order
Q: Is your studio a sacred space, meaning you’re selective as to whom you welcome?
A: Being in my studio is very important to me; it’s where I feel most needed and free. In October I moved my studio back into my home, where friends and peers are often over for dinner. I’ve always worked and been inspired by the energy of having people in my space. The studio is small, which I prefer. In a smaller space you’re forced to make decisions in the work and then set it aside on the rack to work into another. I like this process of working on a piece, and then stacking it, but keeping it close while working on another painting. I think of the rack as a warming drawer in the kitchen.
Q: What would a first time visitor notice about the space?
A: The view of LA — we’re perched in the hills. The layers of the land are inspiring, and push me in thinking about the structure of abstract landscapes.
Q: Besides your Muse, do you have other studio companions?
A: I share the studio with my girlfriend, Gwen O’Neil. She's a photographer focusing primarily on abstracting light and color. We play off of, and inspire, each other. Our work shares elements of inspiration from the color field painters, and we both have a tendency to abstract our surroundings, including memories, personal objects, and feelings of being at home together. Gwen will photograph an object in a certain way that will make me think differently about how I am approaching it, and vice versa.
We also share the studio with our Golden Chow mix named Hampton. He's six, and always covered in paint. If you look closely in my paintings, you’ll probably find a paw print.
Q: Many artists are able to only create within the comfort and familiarity of their studios. Does this describe you?
A: No, I wouldn't say this is me. I truly love to create, and will make a point to paint wherever I am. Or at least try. In the summer, I paint in my studio on Martha's Vineyard. Last summer, Gwen and I painted a large-scale collaborative body of work in East Hampton that was then shown in Tribeca (see photo below). I’m always creating and always thinking about painting.
(The photos featured here of Tommy and his work in their shared studio were taken by Gwen O'Neil.)
Q: In your work, one feels the inevitable chaos of life, of nature, of the unconscious. Beneath the abstraction, how would you define the thread organizing which moments you choose to express?
A: The thread is disorganization. I read the paintings and then they tell me where to go and how to continue. They also sometimes expose new parts of myself I haven't seen before.
Q: Because your work is non-linear and contains multiple entry points, experiencers are free to choose where to enter and how to move through the piece. Can you speak to the importance of accessibility and inclusion?
A: My paintings have freedom because they’re proposed landscapes, not realistic. I paint with such immediacy there’s no time for planning. When I read a work after adding a layer, I find the elements that relate to one another.
My work doesn’t say, "There’s the path to the pond and here’s a painting of it." It says, "Here's a painting of a memory of a color and a scent, and the energy of a moment on the path to the beach." I paint the experience.
Q: Related, the intentional collapse in the scale of shapes, the absence of a fixed entry point, and the sweeping gestural movements all work to achieve a sense of the universe that exists beyond knowing. Does this reflect your desire to make order of chaos, and/or reflect your interior landscape, or commentary?
A: This is an interesting question because I think I am creating chaos out of some sort of order. There’s an undeniable energy in my paintings — they aren't quiet. When I look into the landscape, I feel the tension between placed roads, buildings, billboards, walls, and stop signs, for example. My paintings are a reaction to this.
Q: Across history, artists have been influenced by artists who’ve come before them. Fans of your work acknowledge the influence of the 1980s New York street art narratives of Jean Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. By integrating icons, linework, and text into your paintings, are you maintaining a visual conversation with their legacies?
A: I do connect with these two artists. Basquiat’s work is so immediate feeling. In Julian Schnabel’s film, Basquiat, there’s a scene of the artist painting in the basement of the Annina Nosei Gallery. The basement is such a mess — paint and brushes flying from canvas to canvas. I connected to this so much. My studio process is similar: loud music, canvases everywhere, friends gathered around food on the stove. It’s fun.
Q: Symphonic is a word I would use to describe the timbre of your paintings. How do you compose? Is there a sketch phase, or do you move intuitively within the canvas? Does a work begin with a lyric? A color?
A: The work comes from the music I am listening to. Never sketches, but larger works do sometimes come from smaller paintings. I’ll be working on a 16" x 20" canvas and then make a mark, or color relationship, that will turn into a larger painting at some point. I take a ton of photos on my phone for inspiration — shapes and colors — but I never work directly from them. Shapes come out naturally when I begin to paint because I have a very visual memory.
Q: Blue — is there a story about your relationship to this color?
A: I do tend to reach for blue. It feels as though it has the most energy. I have such a deep love for the island of Martha’s Vineyard, and of being on the water. Having blue paintings around reminds me of summer. I used to dream of a world that only existed within summer — now I live in California. Ha! From a technical side, I really enjoy the color blue. It has so much movement. Mixing blue and white together, I can build-up many layers of a painting — from a diluted stained base to thick impasto strokes, from wet to half wet. And when adding water, blue goes so beautifully translucent. I haven’t found another color that does what I want it to do. Green, maybe, but I’m not as emotionally attached.
Q: What does it look like when you struggle with your work? How do you resolve it?
A: I often struggle with the work. There’s freedom that comes with being an artist and sometimes that's hard to deal with. I look up to artists who maintain strict schedules — wake, eat breakfast, drink coffee, paint for three hours, break for lunch, paint on into the afternoon. I've tried that and ended up wasting canvas and paint. My process is more fluid. I paint when I feel like it, although I do enjoy the pressure of a deadline. I’ve made my best work like that.
Q: Top Ten on your playlist, and which platform?
A: Pretty much anything by The Rolling Stones is played daily in the studio. I think every painting of mine has probably heard their album, Emotional Rescue. I listen to Spotify and play vinyl. A few favs:
Tangerine, Led Zeppelin
Hello Beltracchi, Durbeck & Dolmen
Bad Girls, Donna Summer
Moon is Up, The Rolling Stones
Cowboys and Angels, George Michael
Paris Latino, Bandolero
She's A Rainbow, The Rolling Stones
**Scroll down to listen to Tommy May's STUDIOPLAYLIST
Q: Which printed books, or magazines, are you currently reading, or like to have around?
A: I am currently reading a book on Roman Architecture and, off and on, Donald Judd's Complete Writings 1959 - 1975. There’s always a Mark Rothko, or Cy Twombly book near by. We have too many books and too little shelf space. Books seem to stack on every surface.
Q: Artist, or piece of work, that’s resonated with you from childhood into the present?
A: My Mom and Dad have two sculptures by Aristides Demetrios. The abstracted figures are on ladders in energetic positions. The ladder symbol made its way into my work for a very long time. There are still elements of it.
Q: Dinner for six figures from history, including yourself and your girlfriend, the photographer Gwen O'Neil, who’s on the guest list (living, or not)?
Brice Marden, American painter
Donald Judd, American sculptor
Paula Wallace, Founder and President of SCAD
Wolfgang Beltracchi, German art forger and artist
Jerry Saltz, Senior Art Critic for New York Magazine
Luca Guadagnino, Italian Film Director (most recent film: Call Me By Your Name)
Q: Favorite veggie?
A: Broccoli — we eat a lot of curry.
Q: As an emerging artist at this time in history, can you speak to putting paint to canvas in the context of an expanding digital infinity?
A: Yes, we live in a world where everything is liked, even the negative. It’s “Like, Like, Like.” As artists, some of us put our images out to social followers even before they’re in the galleries. Or we share works in progress — the studio shots. I am guilty of this. I guess what I’m saying is, digital communication changes how we connect to other artists, collectors, dealers, and even our own art. What I’m getting to is how just the other day I was reading about about the painter Hans Hoffman, who was working in Europe, and was using drip techniques around the same time Jackson Pollock, who was living in the States, was exploring drip techniques. They had no idea what the other was doing, but now I can paint a painting, and direct message the art critic Jerry Saltz. And reach him.
Tommy May's work is on view at the Field Gallery in West Tisbury. Join us for an opening of his newest paintings on August 12th from 5-7pm.