Purple Art

[May 22 2015]

Interview with Alexander May on the occasion of his show “26” at The National Exemplar, New York


Alexander May’s presentation 26 at The National Exemplar Gallery in Downtown New York is a continuation of his previous work which centers around language. About a year and a half ago, while concentrating on the shapes of letters and the gestural aspects of communication, May was led to experimenting with glass harmonica. In 26, May presents the ensuing sound piece, which emits from a common kitchen pot drilled with holes. Abstracted bodies, formed on paper from dirt and linseed oil, seem to dance with the music where they line the walls of the gallery.


PAIGE SILVERIA – Tell me about 26.

ALEXANDER MAY – The show was kind of weird. When Eneas [Capalbo, of The National Exemplar] approached me about it he said it was going to the his 26th show. You know, my studio is 206; there are 26 letters in the alphabet; I’ve made circle-eight paintings before. It all equals eight. It’s all very numeral.


PAIGE SILVERIAHow was the sound composed?

ALEXANDER MAY – The sound in the show is built off of this patch, which is what was recorded from 26 different glasses, each representing a letter of the alphabet. I was Googling glass harpists and this guy kept on coming up on YouTube. I went to his website and he’s Italian and I was going to be in Florence soon. I called him and out of all places in the fucking world, this random dude lives 20 minutes outside of Florence and speaks perfect English. It was crazy. And he’s a genius at what he does. He could play full Chopin just with glasses.


PAIGE SILVERIASo what’d he do for you exactly?

ALEXANDER MAY – He went to the Czech Republic and bought all of these glasses for me. In order to only use 26 of them, the patch is built on half-tones. Basically no instrument is ever built on half-tones, so we had to get creative and the sound levels are never quite clear. So anyways I started learning how to play them. Then I realized that this is way bigger. I was thinking about building it for a performance, but it has way more energy to it. That’s what brought me to a whole other body of work. We recorded each glass, which is now connected to a letter on the keyboard. I can re-translate any text this way. I turned it into this wild, new-agey sound machine. Collaboration opens up so many new doors. One self is always slightly limited. Certainly for me, my relationship to technology is super limited. This was a great collaborative effort. I mean, reaching out to that guy on YouTube, I was like, “Really you can do that?” He’s like, “Really? You’re into this shit? Come over!” That’s fucking rad, you know?


PAIGE SILVERIAThen the paintings followed?

ALEXANDER MAY – Well I was spending all of this time in the Dream House. It just has this epicly intense energy. And Eneas was going there a lot. He was saying that the show should have the same vibe. I had been feeling that I had to create a context for the sound, to show how important it is. I wanted to create this energy. I was interested in my body and this gesture. I usually do a lot of drawing before I’m about to start a big body of work. I was doing these drawings when I went to Beirut and I picked up some dirt when I was there.


PAIGE SILVERIAWhat do you mean, you picked up some dirt?

ALEXANDER MAY – I was walking down the street and I saw this bright orangey-red patch of dirt. I was like, “That’s fucking stunning.” So I grabbed a couple of bags of it the day before I left and somehow got it back into the country. Then I had this vision of these bodies, these kind of autistic energies moving and dancing in the room. I wanted to create a community that I could operate this music from and create a context for. They’re engaging and kind of awkward. I could have shown paintings with the sound, but I wanted to do something slightly off. I’ve been drawing like that for some time but never showed it.


PAIGE SILVERIAAnd what are these make-shift speakers?

ALEXANDER MAY – I’d been trying to find a way to build speakers. My background is in sculpture, so I’ve always had a connection to it. A speaker’s design has this total other layer of content. So I was thinking, what sort of object makes sense? With these pots, you think of community, and there’s the same sort of action. Utilizing a pot is the same movement as spinning a glass. It’s the same motion. It had a physicality that I liked, but also a relationship to the body, with eating, etc. All of these layers are there. Then I drilled these holes so it’s like a strainer. This creates a relationship to translation, which is like straining language.


PAIGE SILVERIAAnd it’s come full-circle.


26 is on view at The National Exemplar, 381 Broadway, Suite 201 in New York until the 14th of June. Text and photo Paige Silveria

Subscribe to our newsletter