By Gary Singh
NEARLY EVERYONE who's been in or around the South Bay alternative art scene for a long time knows Ray Ashley. He's the quintessential local eccentric who has collected literally thousands of artworks from Silicon Valley artists over the years. A disabled Vietnam veteran, Ashley is a fixture at art auctions at several galleries. Here's a guy who truly loves to collect art. Right now, WORKS/San Jose on Third Street is showing about 200 pieces from his collection, probably less than 10 percent of what he actually has. Folks say the inside of his home is literally coveredtwo or three layers deep in some placeswith artworks collected throughout the past 25 years. Many local artists consider him their patron saint and the show is called Ray's World: An Overwhelming Look at Ray Ashley's Passion for Art.
Sponsored by History San Jose, the show re-creates the inside of Ashley's house, complete with a bed and a few American flags, along with several artworks on the wall. You get a rare glimpse into the life of an eccentric collector, a guy who truly believes that one should buy what one wants, if one sees it. All PR-speak aside, his collection really does represent a who's who of local artists, and that's precisely what you could find among the guests at the opening reception last week. The show only runs until Jan. 28, so time is running out.
In the same way that historian Leonard McKay's collection of local portraits at the Pesetta House in Kelley Park documents artists of the early half of the 20th century, Ashley's collection documents the alternative arts community of the last 25 years or so.
It all began when the History San Jose folks decided to document and catalog Ashley's collection, since he himself doesn't even know all that he has. Several individuals, most of whom are artists themselves, have been volunteering their time throughout the last year to go through Ashley's house and take snapshots of pieces in his collection in order to build a database of it all. The History San Jose folks first approached him with the idea about two years ago.
"Going through his stuff is like an archaeological dig," said Monica Tucker of History San Jose, one of the folks who originally jumped on the project. And, most importantly, there exists no other collector in the South Bay who can claim more pieces of art than Ray Ashley.
"He's one of the most colorful characters in San Jose," Tucker said.
Both Ashley and WORKS have been around San Jose's art scene forever. WORKS emerged in 1977 at the corner of Vine and Auzerais, right across the street from where House of Pizza was then located. A ragtag crew of SJSU art students built the place by renovating an abandoned Western Mountaineering building and launched their own volunteer-run experimental venue for art, music and performance. Nothing remotely similar was going on in San Jose at the time, and Ashley supported them from the beginning. Following its stint at Vine and Auzerais, WORKS migrated to the Leticia Building on South First Street during the last half of the '80s and then moved to Sixth and Jackson in Japantown. In 1996, the gallery would move to its present location at 30 N. Third St., the Sperry Flour building. Through a quarter-century of ups, downs and ever-changing directorial boards, the organization has survived because there hasn't once been a single, solitary "leader" of the place. The artists themselves run the fort as a whole, with change being the only constant.
It's amazing that WORKS is still kicking after all these years. Two years ago, to celebrate its crazed wandering history, the gallery released a full-color 56-page catalog titled WORKS/San Jose, The First Quarter-Century. Four essays in the book recalled key exhibits, events and financial struggles, as well as the mutating cultural climate of San Jose during the last 25 years. Woven throughout the catalog is a listing of everyone who's ever shown or performed at the gallery, and Ashley has been around since the beginning.
This Thursday from 5:30 to 7pm, gallery staff and the History San Jose folks will talk in the gallery about Ashley's collection. And speaking of time running out, WORKS itself is on the chopping block, as their building has been sold to a landlord who will jack the rent up to way beyond what they can afford. (Same old story.) Alas, the gallery must find a new space yet again. But wherever it goes, Ashley will be there.
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