The final pieces of Ray Ashley will be picked up this weekend, concluding his posthumous collaboration with 40 local artists.
Before we get to the ghosts, allow me to say, “All for Ray, Ray for All.” That’s not just the title of the art show ending right now at WORKS/San Jose. It is a mantra, a hymn, a refrain that shatters the spacetime continuum of the San Jose arts community since at least 1977, when WORKS first opened at Vine & Auzerais, an intersection that no longer exists.
A disabled Vietnam veteran, Ashley probably owned more artworks than anyone in San Jose history when he finally passed away in 2016. His entire three-bedroom house was filled with thousands of pieces he’d amassed throughout his adult life. Ashley was a fixture at gallery auctions for decades, where he often outbid the highbrow crowd. He was a true patron of the arts and he supported the community like no one else. Everyone knew him.
Ashley was also an artist who created hundreds of silkscreens and monotypes before he passed away. The show currently ending at WORKS features 40 of those pieces that were just recently given to local artists so they could collaborate with the late Ashley by adding their own presence onto the existent work. Thus, it was a posthumous collaboration.
Since Ashley was WORKS’ largest individual donor and perhaps the only common thread, alive or dead, that unites all of the gallery’s previous downtown San Jose locations, his ghost was and is inseparable from the history of WORKS to which I will now turn.
The WORKS journey since 1977 bears repeating ad nauseam because it will inspire any local business facing relocation woes. The history is a rocking testament to how the arts can survive endless cycles of neighborhood reconfiguration.
When the gallery first opened 46 years ago, there was no such thing as an “alternative art and performance space” anywhere in San Jose. At the time, much of downtown was still a skid-row zone of boarded-up storefronts and crumbling retail. “The arts” consisted of highbrow types and the blue-haired set, but little else.
Years ago, WORKS co-founder Tony May recalled it perfectly: “We just thought San Jose would be less embarrassing if it had an art gallery.”
So that’s what happened. The original WORKS opened at Vine and Auzerais in 1977, but it lasted only eight years. San Jose politicians wanted a convention center more than they wanted an art gallery, so the city eventually slaughtered the entire neighborhood. The intersection of Vine and Auzerais is long gone.
As a result, WORKS moved into the rundown Leticia Building at 66 S. First St. for the last half of the ’80s, where their rent was $400. As light rail construction then tore up the area, putting retailers out of business left and right, WORKS thrived with punk shows and edgy visual art. Unfortunately, the building was an unreinforced masonry structure, legally uninhabitable after the Loma Prieta earthquake, so the artists were once again forced to relocate, this time to a corrugated metal warehouse at the southeast corner of Sixth and Jackson in Japantown.
Six years later, history repeated itself and the warehouse building was demolished in favor of housing. In 1997 WORKS then relocated to the Sperry Flour Building at 30 N. Third St., where it thrived more than ever, that is, until the real estate operatives again came calling. After a brief, disastrous stint on South First Street, WORKS eventually reopened at 365 S. Market, exactly on the opposite side of the Convention Center from the original location at Vine and Auzerais. But once again, nothing was permanent.
Now, if one stands in the current WORKS space on Second Street—right where the Zanotto’s Market cash registers and fish-whackers used to be—one cannot ignore the ghost of Ray Ashley, especially since the exhibit closing this weekend features a life-size Ashley standing next to 40 of his own silkscreens enhanced by local artists.
No matter what gets created and destroyed in downtown San Jose, for however many decades, the generosity of Ray Ashley will always be with us. WORKS would not have made it this far without him. May his ghost forever roam.