Aspen Mays was raised in Charleston, SC. She received her MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2009 and a BA in Anthropology and Spanish from The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill in 2002. Mays joined the faculty of the California College of the Arts in 2015, where she is an Associate Professor in Graduate Fine Arts and Undergraduate Photography.
In her photographic work, Mays has been called a “Postmodern mystic.” Her work challenges the expectation of photography as a documentary and categorical medium, and her research explores the visualization of knowledge in both visual art and observational sciences. She is interested in the fantasy of objectivity in photographic processes, the artifacts and archives of these processes, and the desire for transcendence in the ordinary and prosaic.
Her solo exhibitions include Tengallon Sunflower and California Dreaming at Higher Pictures in New York; Every leaf on a tree at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; Newspaper Rock at Light Work in Syracuse, New York; and Ships that Pass in the Night at the Center for Ongoing Projects and Research (COR&P) in Columbus, OH. She was included in the national survey of Contemporary Art in the United States, State of the Art, at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas. Her work has been written about in Art Forum, Art Papers, the New Yorker and the New York Times. She is represented by Higher Pictures.
Honors include a Rotary Fellowship in 2006, where Mays studied photography in Cape Town, South Africa while volunteering in a clinic for bead working artisans living with HIV. Mays was a 2009-2010 Fulbright Scholar in Santiago, Chile, where she spent time with astrophysicists using the world’s most advanced telescopes to look at the sky. Her publication (made in collaboration with Dan Boardman) Where We’ve Been, Where We’re Going, Why? was shortlisted for the First Photobook Award by the Aperture Foundation and Paris Photo in 2016.
California Dreaming (self published 2019), available at Dashwood Books
Rising Water at Florida State University Museum of Fine Art
Continuum: Aspen Mays + Dionne Lee at Silver Eye Center for Photography (Below: Palm Psalms, gelatin silver print, dye, pigment, 20×24 in, 2019)
Painting with Light at Yossi Milo Gallery
California Dreaming reviewed in The New Yorker
California Dreaming reviewed by Collector Daily
Tengallon Sunflower reviewed in The New Yorker
Tengallon Sunflower reviewed by Collector Daily (Below: Bandanna, gelatin silver photogram, indigo dye, 20×24in, 2016)
In a series of large-scale black-and-white and smaller brightly dyed works, I pulled from my own archive of images documenting the aftermath of Hurricane Hugo, which hit my hometown of Charleston, South Carolina in 1989. Contemplating a future in which these storms become increasingly destructive and frequent, I was drawn to images of taped window panes—a pre-storm ritual seemingly more shamanic than practical in its ability to provide any protection.
California Dreaming was the name of a Charleston restaurant that appeared in a newspaper image of the storm’s aftermath. Softcover, digital offset, 6 x 8.75in, edition of 300 signed & numbered, self-published, 2019. Text by Claire Pentecost, Design by Victoria Manferdelli, printed by Conveyor Studio
Here, space between perception and knowledge is an underlying principle in an investigation of personal objects: my great grandmother’s bandanna—pale pink, printed with a starburst pattern—and a second vintage bandanna owned by Georgia O’Keefe—dyed indigo and accented with white dots—the kind of ubiquitous textile that seems to have no author or origin. I used pin pricks to meticulously transfer the starburst and dot designs from textile to paper. I complete the process in darkness, feeling rather than seeing my progress. Some record light passing through the pinholes and portions of others remain unexposed, holding only the perforations in the paper itself.
Where We’ve Been, Where We’re Going, Why?
Personal and public photographic archives draw connections between seemingly disparate storylines – an American road trip, the return of Halley’s Comet, and NASA’s Teacher in Space program, which invited the first civilian to leave the Earth aboard the Challenger Space Shuttle in 1986. Shortlisted for the Paris Photo/Aperture Foundation First Photobook Award, 2016. Where We’ve Been, Where We’re Going, Why? By Aspen Mays & Dan Boardman, edited by Christina Labey, designed by Elana Schlenker. Published by Conveyor Studio & Houseboat Press, 2016. 206 Full Color Pages, Double Wire-O Bound, Edition of 500
Ships That Pass in the Night
Drawing on real-time satellite feeds of maritime positioning data, custom software determines when and where two ships “pass in the night” anywhere on the open ocean. A panel of bright lights flash, signaling these serendipitous moments. A printer records the names of the ships and their locations.
Just days before one of the largest earthquakes ever recorded devastated central Chile in 2010, I arrived in Santiago to begin a Fulbright Fellowship at the University of Chileʼs Astronomical Observatory. I used an abandoned darkroom at the Observatory for my studio, and it was against this backdrop of destruction that Sun Ruins was conceived. During this time, I had access to rejected prints, negatives and ephemera from the labʼs archive, and Sun Ruins brings together two series that I created from this material. Both components call into question the expectation of photography as a documentary and categorical medium and each explore—to different ends—the visualization of knowledge in both studio art and observational practices.
To create the series Punched out stars, I used a hole punch to physically remove each prominently-visible star from found silver gelatin prints of unknown dates.
The Sun 1957 is the collective title of 25 silver gelatin prints that depict the Sun from a mid-century international survey of sunspots. Finding the film negatives separated from contextualizing logbooks and labeled only by month and the year 1957, I loosely followed this organizing principle by making contact prints of the negatives in grids. There is no record of November.
The photograms reproduced in this book are made from my collection of dodging tools, started in 2010, with several that I found in an abandoned darkroom at the National Astronomical Observatory in Chile during a Fulbright Fellowship. I was initially struck by the ways in which their basic utility seemed to stand in opposition to the vast technological sophistication of the telescopes being used at the same facility. I came to think of their improvisational character as sharing a common tool-making impulse, all in service to the subjective nature of seeing.
Concentrate and Ask Again
Utilizing humor, this work approaches profound questions of existence from the perspective of an amateur and non-scientist, accessing a common desire to understand concepts that may feel outside of the grasp of the scientifically untrained. This body of work utilizes a wide range of photographic techniques from photogram and experimental light sources, to performance documentation, sculpture made specifically for the camera, high-res scans, and video.
Every leaf on a tree
For this exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Chicago, I produced a site-specific photographic installation titled Every leaf on a tree. The installation consisted of two bodies of work: Every leaf, which documents every leaf on a tree outside of the my studio at the time and consists of over 900 individual color photographs; and Every book, a series of photographs that document every book about Albert Einstein available through the Illinois Collegiate Inter-Library Loan service. These were then organized according to the color spectrum to create a series of individual “rainbows”—referencing Einstein’s theories about light and gravity.