Nicholas May: Look No Hands, John Hansard Gallery
The Guardian 1990
THE John Hansard Gallery at Southampton University is an elegant conversion from a large scale model made to recreate the tides of the Solent. Opened in 1980 it now has the atmosphere of a rather stylish modern chapel. Approached by paths lined with oriental plants, it is a pleasing piece of architecture which avoids any sense of campus run-down. Paintings by Nicholas May are now there. The first you see is very bold, big and bright. One of a series that have one or three blobs of surface tense paint floated upon strong flat colour. The image implodes and explodes at the same time. Heads, figures, stones or planets; they manage to defy gravity and stand up to float across the ground.
The newest paintings are different in that the whole surface is now that image much magnified which waves to hold the surface from top to bottom. When he uses the bright colour it is place and space and not mass or thickness.
May makes his paintings with "hands off' rather than "hands on" method. Abstract and yet accessible; they are particularly winning and generous in an era that implies it is difficult, if not downright impossible, to make paintings that are new and intelligent.
Painting has been in the doldrums, sculpture and photography have dealt better with the need to escape the past associations of form. This artist, though, manages the situation well by making unadulterated and unashamed two-dimensional works that do all the things that painting used to; only now. There is that element of risk in the work. They are a description of that risk.
Control was something the Abstract Expressionists pretended to lose when they worked. The idea of being lost in some thing, letting it take over, is somewhat of a myth, we all know that. It is impossible to deliberately lose anything, especially yourself. These paintings perfectly balance risk with control, only this time the artist is somewhere outside the painting. He pours black enamel and varnish on to the canvas which is flat on the floor and then sprinkles metallic dust on top.
The rest happens on its own with only a nudge of the stretchers by May. Beauty is brought about by experiment each time. Having set the scene. this artist stands back without the involvement of brush or implement to observe with the rest of us. This deliberate lack of control has nothing to do with other abstract work in which painters try their best to create accident and incident with their own hand. The effect, though, is the opposite to chaos. The paintings have a cool stillness about them that is not about a display of activity. They remind of questions of responsibility, in fact.
The scientist who has gone a bit too far perhaps, the invention of hybrid. disease, danger and possible threat. The bomb before it goes off, the strange way in which beauty comes with bad things as well as good. Of others tampering, manipulating, playing around in an area that we don't fully understand and over which we have no control.
© Sacha Craddock 1990