D.E. May 1952-2019
D.E. May drawer at PDX Contemporary (many from his show at LAX Art in 2014)
The art ecosystem in Oregon is mourning the death of D. E. May last night. One of our most accomplished and concentrated artists, Dan was an artist's artist with an immense poetic gift for delicate (often paper) materials that had existed previously for other purposes. Dan took their lines and surfaces, pressing them into something like entropic circuit boards that acted like treasure maps for those with an interest in archival ephemera and arcane order. A veteran of Portland's pioneering Jamison/Thomas Gallery Dan then became synonymous with JTG almuni gallery, PDX Contemporary, arguably setting the tone for that gallery now known for quiet contemplative work. Gallerist Jane Beebe (JTG then her own gallery PDX) worked with Dan for 35 years and there was something special and nourishing in that relationship. Dan was PDX's pole star and Jane became Dan's favorite ship to run up the rigging and set art to sail on.
Where May's work is crucial is how it sits in continuum with the hermetic traditions of art and civilization. Where monks in the middle ages might toil to hand copy books, Dan's work preserved to appreciate all the details that support precision but imperfect activities. As artifacts they became a residue of the immense concentration and intention he put into the work in the service of honoring his materials and philosophy. This puts him in line with other hermetic materials artists like Paul Klee, Joseph Cornell, Yves Klein and Richard Tuttle. What made his work so refreshing is its stark contrast to the dumpster diving effluence of many contemporary artists today and Dan could do more in 3 inches than many artists that fill warehouses. That succinct aspect of his work was the soul of material eloquence... his work doesnt carpet bomb your senses so much invite you to saturate your senses with sustained attention. One doesnt leave May's work feeling shell shocked, instead I've always felt refreshed from the expansive agency his work bathes the eyes and mind in.
His work can be found in some of the world's finest collections
and PORT reviewed his excellent exhibition The Template Files at PDX
back in 2011.
Dan's work is currently on view at PDX Contemporary and on the 4th floor of the Portland Art Museum's Northwest wing.
D.E. May currently on display at the Portland Art Museum
Untitled (detail), 1997, on view at the Portland Art Museum
I spent most of the morning yesterday looking at his work and it left me contemplating motivation in art and many other things. Where so many artists who gain attention in Oregon do so partly through teaching and public service Dan's work was everything and it showed. Where other artists would change their art to drift with the fashions of the moment Dan had immense personal style and it suffused everything he did. It wasnt something he put on as an artist... it was why he was an artist. Jean Cocteau once said, "Style is a simple way of saying complicated things," and it is appropriate of Dan's work.
Portrait of D.E. May (by Jeff Jahn)
Like many, I am deeply saddened by this news but I remember so much of the short segments of time we spent discussing art... my favorite being the one I captured as an photographic portrait. We were at one of his shows at PDX and he was leaning against a support column. His shoes and feet positioned with such agility and grace, co-opting the patina of the floor as an extension of the patina of his shoes. A human being's comportment says a lot about them and Dan had this kind of grace he extended through his midas touch. I had my camera in my hand and I took the picture of where he stood. There was no composition and the photo was framed simply by the way my arm geld the camera as we spoke. Dan loved the photo. An artist's comportment can say a great deal about them and I think that photo tells one a great deal about Dan May, for me it say here was a dancer of materials in a poet's shoes.
Serious talk of a retrospective has already begun.
Thank you for your insights and understanding of the art and the artist. Dan wanted his work to speak for itself and would have appreciated that you posted so many images and I totally believe That he favored the photographic portrait. Dan took care and pride in with everything. Bless him.