May Hands is standing behind the glass facade of Roman Road, a two-year-young gallery named after its East London address. The artist is busy mounting brightly coloured rope and florist’s ribbon, creating a curtain through which visitors will pass to enter a space – her first UK solo exhibition, 'Bleach' – that she’ll fill with her distinctive mixed-media works.
'I find inspiration in places that maybe aren't always so obvious, in the imperfect or the everyday. A hardware shop, for example, or this rubbish even,' Hands explains, pointing to a brightly coloured bag topped with wilted flowers, sitting on the pavement outside. 'You can see through the layers of the plastic – that's where the original idea for my 'paintings' came from. To me they are like ready-made paintings or ready-made sculptures.'
'Bleach' includes Hands' series of 'feather duster paintings', made by attaching chopped feather dusters, in bright yellow or pink, to ink-stained polythene mounted on aluminum stretchers sometimes covered by cellophane. The backs of these pieces reveals how they're made – but from the front, they look like blurred, bleached canvases.
Hands combines conventional and unconventional materials as a way of addressing the history of painture and the structure of a painting: 'The idea of it being a sculpture because you can see the stretcher bars. And when we hang them you can see the screws. It's not just the paint on the surface of the canvas. What's holding it up? That's how I've always seen painting.'
She describes her practice as 'finding the right ingredients, putting them together and perfecting the recipe'.
Other works on show, which Hands calls her 'bucket' sculptures, are plaster casts inspired by street objects she came across in Naples. Some are filled with paper or grocery bags, some with Chanel ribbon; others are strewn with gravel or topped off with a pole decorated with wire food ties.
Context is everything, Hands stresses, returning to the rope she's hanging. 'An object can have several different lives. These ropes never knew their destiny! I use low-cost materials but then in the context of making an artwork they take on another value. Just by an action, by selecting what to show, their value changes.'