Called a “narrative painter” by Jacob Lawrence at the prestigious Skowhegan Artist Residency, Ealy Mays creates meticulously detailed paintings, which animate history in a visual language all his own. The Paris-based artist’s action-packed canvases brim with characters, movement, and symbolism. In Mays’ work, individual images tell the story of the various political events, technological developments, and cultural attitudes which result in the scene depicted. Whitewall met the artist to discuss his first solo show in New York—most of the pieces were stolen—and his current retrospective at ABXY Gallery on the Lower East Side (where the artist will be in conversation with the gallery’s founder, Allison Barker on Wednesday, December 6 from 6-8pm).
WHITEWALL: Tell us about your first solo show in New York?
EM: That was in 2009 at Fortissimo Gallery. I showed a lot of stuff. I like to show paintings from my different series together. They’re all connected in some way. I remember I showed, If Everybody Thought the Same Nobody Would Think, a prototype of Migration of the Super Heroes, Cajun Mama Queen, and a lot of “Pokadotta” Paintings.
Most of the pieces I brought to New York for that show were stolen. 37 pieces. I knew this guy from Paris who was supposed to pick up the pictures in New York. He picked them up and disappeared with them. Paul Sinclair was the name he used. I met him in Paris at a soirée. He even had the nerve to claim to represent me. I thought he was one of my good friends.
WW: That’s terrible! Before they got stolen, what was the reception like?
EM: It was great. I had a lot of heavy hitters there, big collectors of African American art. For example, Reggie van Lee, George N’Namdi, Brenda and Larry Thompson. Larry wanted a piece. He was the federal prosecutor under Reagan and the CEO of Pepsi Cola. They [later] underwrote my 2016 retrospective at the Hammonds House. When I saw him at the Hammonds House opening, he asked me about the painting he wanted to buy all those years ago from the New York show. It was one Paul had stolen. I still don’t have it back.
WW: What made you want to do a show in New York now?
EM: I felt it was time for some new energy. Many people I knew in the New York art scene from before are no longer with us. Some I just don’t want to work with anymore. This show is a retrospective but it also represents a shift. Shedding off the old bullshit. Like I said, I wanted new energy.
I’m in a reflective place. I want to make pictures about what’s going on today. But I’m also at a point in my life and career where I’m looking back on my experience.
My “Cosmic” series focuses on space and time and infinity. I was a product of the Cold War. I grew up with NASA’s quest to the moon. And every Saturday morning we used to always watch the launches on television. When I was a kid we could only watch television for two hours a week. I remember some of the earliest programs we watched were The Outer Limits, The Twilight Zone, and Star Trek. We all had telescopes. It was a time of fascination with the great frontier of outer space.
WW: You explore concepts of infinity in your “Pokadotta” series as well. Can you tell us a little more about that?
EM: The Pokadotta series was really developed out of my conflict with the figurative, [when] I went to Skowhegan. At Skowhegan, I was in conversation with all these very serious abstract artists like Anish Kapoor, Gary Hill, Nan Goldin.
I remember I made some big paintings. One of the Battle of Isandlwana where the Zulus were fighting the British Empire in South Africa. It was figurative work, in my style, images packed with symbols and references to history and the different histories that led the people depicted in the scene to the place they’re at in the image.
They did critiques in this building called The Little Red Barn. They raosted me in the first critique! But I didn’t give a damn. I was sticking with figurative. And Jacob Lawrence gave me a great critique—he called me a narrative painter. He meant that my paintings tell stories.
My experiences with these abstract artists stuck with me. I remember Anish Kapoor showing us these rocks he was making with holes all over them. And I asked him what it was about but I didn’t get a definitive answer until he came to my studio. He was talking about black holes, infinity, and all that.
Then in 2008, I came across this sketch I had made in 1975, when I was in high school in Dayton, Ohio. There was a girl that I liked who was a modern dancer. I used to go watch her dance and I would sketch her in all these different positions. It was like. “How many ways can a human body move?” I always wanted to revisit the idea. I had since been inspired by the movements of Martha Graham and Alvin Ailey. And I found myself circling back to the idea of infinity.
So, reflecting on the conversations I had had with all of those abstract artists at Skowhegan, I started working out the mechanics, how I could make something look figurative and abstract at the same time? I wanted to paint the place where figurative and abstract meet and that’s how I came up with the “Pokadotta” series.
Ealy Mays’ work is on view at ABXY through December 22.