Skip to content
Tony May at work, 2020


Tony May taking a break from cutting mortises for the brackets for the new roof, San Jose, CA 2020.

For Tony May the boundary between art and life is blurred - his home in downtown San Jose has evolved into an artwork in its own right, with the many improvements, additions and amendments he has made to it over the years.  The other, more portable, aspect of his practice are his paintings documenting these projects, a selection of which are included in our  upcoming summer exhibition, Documents. Tony recently took a break from construction on his latest endeavor to speak with us from his painting studio.

GAG: I think we should go back to the beginning, to your house, which you've been in for - what is it, close on 40 years now?

Tony May: Since 1972, how long is that? That would be fifty, right?

GAG: Goodness - so what can you tell me about the house?

TM: Well, of course it was a very affordable house, though it wasn't cheap, as a matter of fact, it didn't seem that cheap to us at the time cause it was about all we could qualify for but I dare not tell you what we paid for it because it sounds absurd. And it was also very close to San Jose State where I was teaching, so it was very convenient. The fact that the neighborhood was kind of questionable, did not really occur to us particularly much. The neighborhood, you know, is full of old houses and my house - this house - was built in the mid-1920s. So it's coming up on a hundred years old now. But it was a fairly young house for the neighborhood, many of the neighbor's houses were like twenty or thirty years older, from, you know, late Victorian, late 1800s and so on. And so many of those houses had been turned into rentals, they'd been broken up, these big old houses, broken up into apartments and stuff. So there were a lot of transient, short-terms rentals living on the street. We had next door neighbors for a time that were terrible - and scary - scary terrible. Like drug-crazed maniacs, and they were really getting close to us in many ways and we thought we'd have to sell and move away. And already at that time I had done quite a few things to the house, like build a stair to the upstairs and all sorts of things. And I thought: I'd hate to move away and lose track of all those things I built, so that was one of the motivations to do these documentary paintings. Of course, I always photographed things so I had a lot of photographs to work with, but I think that was the thought that lead to the "Home Improvements" series. I started painting paintings and then the neighborhood did improve, the maniacs somehow got kicked out and some good friends of ours bought the house next door. I was always interested in documenting things that I had built, so the motivation to do it before we no longer had to move away existed, but I did continue to do it after. 

Another thing about the house, when we bought the house, we liked the house quite a bit but I was always very fond of houses with multiple levels, several floors, upstairs and downstairs and so on. This was just a one-story home, three bedroom, sort of Craftsman-style house it's called. So, actually one of the first things I did was put in an upstairs room, or I finished off a portion of the unfinished attic; which wasn't really up to code or anything. In fact, as you know, I never really consult anyone to do anything… It was all in the hippie tradition, of just do it yourself, because you can do it yourself, and you needn't involve other people in this decision.

So that's how I ended up building the room upstairs, and putting a room down in the basement - I made another stairway from a back bedroom down into the basement and finished off a room in the basement - there's a painting about that. There's a painting about most of these, what seemed to become for me major accomplishments, but I always considered that somewhat silly - the whole concept. I've always had a level of ability to mock myself, I think, pretend that I was very serious or straightforward about these things, but actually realized that they were kind of silly and kind of humorous and also they were connected to the tradition of popular mechanics magazine or popular mechanics books of how to do things to your house - it was inspired by that tradition of do it yourself, which I grew up with.

GAG: But not in any way as things are now, in the way of the DYI fashion, more of a practical nature.

TM: It was an older tradition, and actually until recently I subscribed to popular mechanics to give to my son, but I just let it lapse, I looked in it recently and the projects are not the same, they're not practical and it seems to be geared towards guys, most the ads were for like whiskey, and most of the projects were for things like build your own flame-thrower, or some stupid, macho, dude sort of thing. Whereas the tradition that I grew up with was more inspired by people living on farms who had to make practical devices to, for example, let the chickens get out, open their own cage door in the morning with a special little latch which chickens could operate. That was more my inspiration, or tradition.

I think the first small, I guess 9x11 inches I guess they are, wood panel painting that I did was the "Kitchen Island." Actually I entered that into the State Fair in Sacramento and that got in, that was the first time I showed one of those paintings. But I thought that was really kind of humorous. Or else I also thought just the term a "kitchen island" was somehow kind of poetic or odd, even though I'm sure it was in common usage but it struck me as sort of, I don't know. It was a little tongue-in-cheek, but also was literally, exactly true. I think it says "A kitchen island remedies the former lack of counter space" or something like that.

GAG: You do get that Popular Mechanics, illustrated feel from the paintings, but the captions, which of course are also the titles, are such a big part of what you're doing. You're documenting the projects that you've done, but everything comes together in such an intentional way, where does the text enter into the process?

TM: Well I think it varies a lot from painting to painting. Sometimes I'm doing the painting and the whole time I'm painting, which of course I make into a long, drawn-out process, I'm thinking, I'm writing down possible captions and because I hand-letter all of those captions, brevity is of course much desired. Because it can take me an awfully long time to hand-letter all those. So that helps in keeping them somewhat terse - but the visual format of the captions on the paintings was directly inspired by the Duchamp rectified readymade "Apolinère Enameled." That altered paint label had white block letters on a black background that I liked. And then I'm also hoping for a little bit of a - something to add a little spice to it with the caption, something to add some element of either mystery or confusion or clarity that still remains unclear.

GAG: Okay, you said something about humor earlier - 

TM: I like when they can be sort of humorous, but you don't want to make it just a cartoon caption. I like, the term I prefer is something that is revealing and yet remains mysterious. I always used to think that maybe they were good if they seemed like they were part of - this is most true of the "Home Improvement" series - those were of course done individually but when they were all put together, it seemed like every one of them was taken out context a little bit, as if they were part of a narrative, maybe from a mystery or something like a mystery story, and you didn't know exactly what the significance of this particular bit of information was in relation to the larger narrative, but you thought it did, you thought it was taken out of some other context. So that's some of them. "The Non-Slanted Step…" is a very obvious one, there's a bit of an in-joke, an art in-joke and maybe too obvious, too stupid. So I'm always dealing with that issue, of "is this really doing anything at all or is it too stupid? Or is it too obscure?" You know it's one of those issues; but like I said, because the painting takes so long I have a long time to think about it.

Once in a while I have no idea even at the very end of the painting what the hell the caption is going to be. A good example is the one, "The Draw-Pin Latch…" That was just a nice picture, I liked that image, but I had no idea really what the point of it was. "What's the caption here?" and finally it just hit me, well, focus on this almost invisible portion of this painting and make it seem like that was the intention of the whole painting to illustrate this small technical detail.

GAG: A lot of your paintings are of these details, and what you were saying, about that lack of context in your captions means a lot of the images also lack that context because you've essentially cropped it out, focusing on this one very particular aspect. So compositionally, formally too, it becomes mysterious. What is it about the images that you choose, how do those come to be? It's not so much documenting the project in some cases, how are you finding these images that you are then choosing to paint?

TM: Again it varies from painting to painting. Usually if I'm working on a project, I'm photographing it as I go, and sometimes I'll just sit and look at all these images I've collected and try to decide if any one of those images suggests to me that it's of interest enough, either compositionally or formally or subject-wise, to constitute a painting. There's such a small portion of the things that I do that get turned into paintings. It's a real editing down. Oftentimes people have asked me, "Well why aren't you content just taking a photograph of a thing? Why do you torture yourself to do this painting?" And I don't exactly know for sure the answer to that but I think it's part of the work ethic. Somehow art to me seems like it should be the result of some bit of struggle, or a challenge to actually make it come together. Which is true of the carpentry projects. I don't really enjoy very much just mindless building of things. I like there to be something that makes me use my brain and try to see if I can learn something new or stretch myself a little bit. Right now I'm working on something that I'll - maybe will turn into a painting, possibly, and I think I kind of know the caption of it. It's a window frame - I think you've seen the little roof that I made [connecting the T House to the T Tree House House], well there are these braces that support the roof and the space between the roof and the braces is this triangular space and there is absolutely no reason for there to be a glazed window there, functionally, but I just looked at it and thought that would be so cool if there was a window there. So it's a completely superfluous window and it's really complicated because I've had to frame around the projecting 4x4s and all this kind of thing. So it's a very complicated window frame, it's going to have about five pieces of glass in it. You get the idea that that one - yeah, this probably should be a painting. I'm really proud of it because it was a technical tour-de-force. Putting it together I decided - I kept going, "no, you're not really going to do this, are you?"

GAG: Having been in the space and having seen these projects in person and experiencing them, I think that a lot of the details that show up, seem to be happenstance in a way, that as they are built, opportunities for these kind of brainteaser, tongue-twister, kind of…

TM: Well that's what I really like most: when I'm building anything and in the process of building it, some evolution of the whole concept emerges. And I think, "Oh, this would be much more interesting if I threw out the whole original idea and just changed it, went with this." That's how that deck and that roof came about just this summer. I'm sure it's because we're all locked in because of the coronavirus. Also the moving of the door, which had the text that Lonny had written back in 1970 - now that's on the outside of the T Tree House House. That was a good example of that little eureka moment - "oh, that's where that has belonged all along!" I didn't realize it, or, that's where the entrance should be to both buildings and [the roof] ties them together and somehow now they're getting really linked. It's fun, and it's a playhouse; it's also kind of frivolous I suppose. I don't really know what the great social benefit is of doing this, if there is any.

GAG: Well, I think that's the question with art, generally speaking.

TM: There's so much art nowadays that focuses on social betterment or social issues, when in fact that seems to be mostly what the university people are doing, you know the students in art classes here, mostly seem to be focusing on large social issues of one sort or another. I like to think that my work is not completely lacking in complexity or some kind of social relevance. I think my work is kind of preachy in fact sometimes, I think it suggests that I believe that these older ways of doing things are quite valuable and will have some kind of lasting value. When I did the retrospective at the ICA I called it "Old Technology." I thought that was kind of funny because in the middle of Silicon Valley and everything - and I figured my technology skills sort of never really advanced beyond the 18th or 19th century.

GAG: It doesn't need anything else to work, it has that going for it.

TM: What it was - suggesting that that level of technology is - I always found that really admirable, this rural kind of self-reliance that I grew up with. My father was a great builder of things. Not in an artistic sense but just in a very practical sense. He'd build his own machine sheds and barns and corn cribs and things like that and I helped him build those things. He was a blacksmith and he shoed horses and he had a sawmill - he sawed lumber for other farmers, he was a very ingenious guy. He made his own gate latches, all this kind of stuff. So that's what I grew up with. Even though I didn't get along with him very well, I had nonetheless great admiration for him as a very capable person. So I think that's part of the tradition here, it is a rural tradition of - where you have no choice but you have to make do with what you can improvise yourself. You're not running off to a store to find a solution. People nowadays can't imagine making things for themselves, for the most part. Students - even before I retired that was already the case. Students had so little experience in making anything for themselves, so, I guess that's one of my religions.

GAG: You do think of architecture a lot though, even if it's not part of what you're doing, you're consciously designing what you make. You also think a lot about traditional craftsmanship, and not just what you grew up with, but you've spent a lot of time studying, for instance, Japanese techniques as well, in the hand tools you use and such.

TM: Yes, to some extent I do, and of course I was inspired by that tradition as well, as by the rural craftsman tradition that I grew up with. I admire the Japanese tradition a lot, and when my friend Lonny took it up I was doubly inspired and motivated to try to pick up a few more of those things; but I also realized that that is a completely different tradition and it's not a tradition that a dilettante can get very involved with. It requires a lifetime commitment and probably a multi-generational commitment to really get into the true subtleties and refinement of it. So my efforts were more inspired by what I could learn from reading books or looking at a book. I was just as much inspired by the Western wood joinery tradition, which is very related but for the most part simpler, not as sophisticated. It didn't evolve the level of sophistication that the Japanese tradition did. But I always say, when I built that first building, that was the closest to truly orthodox wood joinery that I built, but I wouldn't have got a passing grade in a Japanese workshop. I would have failed - my joints had gaps that you could put more than a playing card in, that's for sure.

The other thing - I was always very, very inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright. I grew up in a town that was about 35 miles from Spring Green, from [Wright's home] Taliesin, and so Wright was quite a presence in the area. And he was greatly admired by many and he was greatly despised by many - he wasn't a great neighbor, basically. He was an elitist, in the extreme, and despite his family roots in that part of the world, he had, I don't know, not a good relationship with the rural population around. So his place was kind of like an island of sophistication in the midst of rural Wisconsin, which mostly didn't understand him. And he didn't pay his bills either, which was another thing that made him not terribly liked. In spite of the fact that he was kind of an obnoxious person, he's just an absolute genius at inventing wonderful buildings. And you know people often complained about how his buildings so often ran over budget so badly and that sort of thing - and that was true - and they did leak, you know the roofs leaked and so on, but what I've thought when I've read about him, one thing that I know was that he was constantly redesigning his buildings as they were being built. You know, so he would probably get a better idea as he could see this building coming together and he could say, "wait, that needs to be changed," and that would be a change order and that would be very expensive - fortunately most of his clients were rich, and they could actually pay for those buildings. That sort of inspired me - and that's been unfortunately the only way I've been able to build - I have to start out very simply with a very basic thing, and then as I'm actually getting into it I can begin to see what the possibilities are for making it come together and making it more interesting. So I'm kind of inspired by that belief about how people like Wright went about building. But I never thought of myself as an architect really, I've only thought of myself as a builder. I usually have to make models of everything that I'm going to build, I have to build it on a small scale first. Rather than drawings - I don't like to start with blueprints, I like to start with building a small version of it.

GAG: So your paintings kind of work in the opposite direction, because they're taking this more or less complete, very complex, time consuming project and then filtering out all that extraneous information down to that one detail.

TM: Oftentimes that true, yeah. There're just a few of the paintings that do not specifically document things that I've built, but they're pretty rare. There's that pile of concrete blocks - I kept rearranging them as they sat there for years and years. I didn't know if I would ever get around to using them. I had gotten them for free, though I had to pay to have somebody haul them, but someone was giving us free stuff. I thought, again, "oh these could come in handy for something." And then I had that big stack there for years so then I would keep rearranging it and eventually it sort of became like this stairway that you could use to look over the fence and see what was happening in the alley. 

GAG: Looking at the paintings we're showing… there's also the one of the speaker.

TM: That one's a little bit hard to follow but can you see that that old speaker - I had that speaker for a long time just on the wall in the shop, and then I thought "well it would be nice if this speaker could also be turned around so it could face out the window, so when I'm working outside, I could  have the sound coming out through the window." So that's how that hinge works, that hinge swings the speaker out so that it faces out towards the outside. I should have but some arrows or something on the painting, pointing out the hinges.

GAG: It takes a minute to look at it but once it sort of resolves -

TM: It's a little obscure - but that's okay.

GAG: One other thing we were talking about earlier was this idea of humor. You just used the word obscure and I think that's -

TM: I think that sound system is humorous in itself, because it's so old and you know, minimally functional I mean. I have this friend, this old girlfriend, who I often ask, to get her opinion on the captions, but I hardly ever go along with her recommendations, which she finds quite annoying. I keep trying to explain to her that absolute clarity is not necessarily one of my goals. 

GAG: I wouldn't use the word funny, although sometimes the paintings really, truly are, funny - you said poking fun earlier. I would almost say there is a little satirization of, not just in the captions necessarily but in the paintings themselves.

TM: Sometimes I like to play; as I said I'm completely serious about thinking that this image is of great, wide, significance. Even though I know that it isn't, that it's just my own playing. But tongue-in-cheek is a thing, and then there's some kind of a humor that I think is a dead-pan humor. I hope not overly obvious, and sometimes it's hardly detectable, but I like for there to be a little edge of humor of some sort. I don't always hit it, sometimes I can't seem to find it.