Doug Simay is almost always surrounded by art. He's boiling up a cup of Turkish coffee in his University City townhouse, and every time he sees me linger at one of the hundreds of pieces in his collection, he tells an accompanying tale.
“Do you recognize that woman in the photograph?” he asks in his rapid-fire manner of speaking.
I'm standing in front of a huge photo of a beautiful half-naked woman in a red wig sitting back-to-back with her mirror image.
“It's Melissa Walker,” he continues. “You know she's a photographer, right? I met her when she was subletting a studio place down on Market—Market and 14th, I think it was, back when downtown was real bohemian—she was sharing the space with Phillip Ritterman. Melissa got it into her mind that she wanted to buy property so she'd have room to do and show art, and she ended up with that space [Distinction Gallery and Artist Studios] up in Escondido. She's got drive, that one.”
It's a week earlier, in Simayspace at the Art Academy of San Diego, an art school and gallery Simay started nearly a decade ago, the admitted art addict takes me on a whirlwind tour of 20th Century San Diego Art from Two Collections, Simay's current curatorial creation that shows off pieces from his collection and a few pieces from the collection of his good friend, Stuart Burton, another longtime figure in the local art scene.
For the tour, he uses the same technique of looking at me looking at the art, and then launching into a densely packed story of who the artist is, what the artist's entire body of work is like, where the artist is now and how he met the artist and acquired the piece. It's astounding, really, the way Simay's sharp blue eyes focus in on a work and then, as if some sort of internal brain trigger has been pulled, he's able to flawlessly shoot off the who, what, where, when and why of every one of his more than 500 pieces of original art.
One of the pieces in the show, an intaglio by Larry Dumlao from Burton's collection, leads to an almost unbelievable story about how the artist died.
“Do you know that name?” he asks, with raised eyebrows. “Larry Dumlao was an artist in San Diego who did a whole lot of conceptual stuff. This was way back, you know, 20 years ago. He was the guy who developed Brown Field [airport]. Did you know there were a bunch of galleries that used to be at Brown Field? They had these facilities that came under control of the city of San Diego, so the city rented them out to artists. They were cheap…. Anyway, anyone in the San Diego art world in those days would remember Larry. The trippy thing about Larry is that he died in the middle of a performance. He lifted up into the sky, pretending to be a cloud or something, then sunk to the ground and just never came back up. That was it. It was all over, but that's the way Larry would have wanted to go.”
Back at Simay's house, over a cup of his hot Turkish coffee, I ask him if he remembers the first piece of art he bought.
“I do remember the first piece I ever bought, uh-huh,” he says, leaping from his chair, “and if you'll just follow me, I'll show you.”
Simay leads the way upstairs, passing paintings, photographs and three-dimensional assemblages that hang in place of where other folks—folks without an extensive art collection that can be rotated out every few months and still never reach its end—might hang a succession of their kids' school photos. Simay digs through an immaculately organized closet—everything in his home, by the way, is immaculate, which makes the place feel more like a contemporary-art gallery than a home—for just a few seconds before he pulls out a drawing by Robert Bechtle, a Bay Area artist who's since had a big retrospective exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Without hesitation, Simay catapults himself into a story about how he had bought the piece from the San Diego Museum of Art and how, when he went back to pick up the piece, Henry Gardiner, the museum's director at the time, tried to tell him the museum had purchased it and that the “people of San Diego took precedent” over Simay.
“I said, ‘Well, bullshit, that's not the way it's gonna work,'” Simay says. “I did my research and found out that the museum hadn't actually tipped their hat until three or four weeks after I'd already bought it.”
Long story short, the young Simay eventually convinced the big-time museum director to give him the piece, and the thrill of that first hunt has kept him coming back to buy art for more than 30 years.
Simay has come up with two specific rules for buying. First, he buys a piece of art only in the year of its production, and second, he buys only regional art, meaning art from San Diego, Orange County and Los Angeles. So not only will you get personal anecdotes by looking through Simay's art collection, you'll get a perspective on what was going on during a particular time in a particular place—a tiny piece of worldwide art movements that were happening in our own backyard.
The juxtaposition of the paintings Simay picked up in the '70s and '80s, lots of neo-expressionism and printmaking, with the works he picked up in the '90s, mostly neo-surrealism and hyperrealism, is visually apparent, as if at the start of different decades, artists across Europe and the United States got together and decided to change their styles. And then there's San Diego artists like Manny Farber—Farber's large-scale painting “Nix” takes up most of Simay's living-room wall—whose work is iconic and screams out a particular style unique to Southern California.
But Simay hasn't been collecting art all this time with the idea of piecing together the region's art history. He buys art simply because he likes to look at it and because he loves the story, the “little world,” as he calls it, that goes along with each piece.
“Art objects are like talisman for relationships,” Simay says. “They're signatories—they're triggers for stories.”
Twentieth Century San Diego Art from Two Collections is on view at Simayspace at the Art Academy of San Diego, 840 G St., Downtown, publicly through Dec. 21 and privately through January. For an appointment to see the show, call 619-231-3900 or visit www.simayspace.com.