Using found objects, Victoria May seeks beauty in dichotomy and tension, the creepy and absurd
Victoria May is a delicate, fair-haired wraith in Doc Martens. Her work, showcased in galleries and museums, combines transparent fabrics with industrial metals, with rocks and rusted hardware. On my way to the heart of her studio, I pass through a hallway filled with power saws, cement and buckets of dirt, then through a large space containing a sink, hot plate, work table and enough chainlink fence to corral a few acres, and on into the sewing room, which is surrounded by sculptures of felt, concrete, rocks, fur and wire.
May’s work is gorgeous but not pretty, and her color palette hovers around shades of pale brown.
“It’s always about trying to merge dichotomies, conceptually and aesthetically,” says May. Wire and fabric, organic and machine-made, male and female. “I’m always trying to find the weaknesses of the industrial, where bits of nature, like fur, [or] leather, can be inserted.”
A pin-up of James Dean hangs over the sink, beaming approval. “Lately I’m letting the fetishistic and sensual creep in,” she says, pointing to a black inner tube sculpture spewing silk-encased entrails. She calls the tentacled monster “a study in convulsion.”
Awarded a Rydell Fellowship in 2012, May created a haunting installation at the Museum of Art & History, made of fiber, wire and galvanized metal stuffed with earth-dyed fabric—army blankets into which the odd, polished rock was playfully, almost tragically, inserted into the folds. Her work questions time and human vanity with equal irony, and uses the most mundane of materials—from bicycle parts to camp cots, slabs of chicken wire, feathers, wood, old fire hose, and cast concrete. “I fabricate so much—merging, engineering, putting things together, problem solving—I enjoy the ambiguity of what the finished product might be about.” The results are invariably ghastly, in a beautiful way.
Painstakingly hand-sewn headgear and blouses comprised one of her signature traveling exhibits. The delicate fabric had been previously “antiqued” by being buried in pots of dirt (see the front hallway). “I want my process to be mediated by change. It seems too easy to just dye it,” she says, grinning impishly. “Anatomy and geology, which I feel are linked, are among my motifs. My early work was dark. Lately I still like the darkness, but now I insert levity.”
After taking a degree at UCLA, May fled Los Angeles and moved to Santa Cruz sight unseen. “I started MFA work at San Jose State in photography, and kept wanting to make photos more object-like. Soon making objects took over. My first real job was making wedding dresses for a bridal shop in Aptos,” she says, opening a box containing a delicate organza blouse, one of many contradictory creations May has designed and executed over the past two decades. “It was satisfying but I was nervous about messing up,” she says. “I did that for two or three years, as well as working for Shakespeare Santa Cruz in the costume shop.”
We examine the details of the organza blouse, whose deep hems are filled with a trapunto quilting of sand. Another is embroidered with chicken vertebrae, while broken windshield glass has been expertly sewn into yet another piece, creating an eerie body armor of organdy and glass. “I was thinking of heaviness,” she explains. “You know when you put on that lead vest at the dentist’s for x-rays?
Working with the material helps me figure out what it wants to do,” she says, stroking a square of rough horsehair upholstered with stretched silk. “My most favorite part of what I do is either making myself laugh or making myself uncomfortable—when I see the absurdity or creepiness of it.”
PHOTO: RR JONES