The burly, pansexual half African-American New Yorker Nayland Blake makes sculpture, drawings, performance and video doggedly engaged with race, sexuality and the push-and-pull of physical might. One might say that the umbrella theme of his work is transgression, delivered in dishes from the sweet to the disgusting. His exhibitions have often made me feel, as someone who is weak, white and straight, like I’ve missed something. Behavior, a mid-career survey currently up at the young non-profit space Location One, fails proudly at filling in the blanks. It is unusual, for example, that a retrospective (50 works from 24 years) omit key works from an artist’s exhibition history. It is strange to eschew the industry-standard blanket of a sticky-vinyl preface essay on the first wall. It is weird for a survey show of an artist well known for video and performance to include no monitors at all. After ten years of looking at Blake’s work, however, this exhibition has allowed me at last to get a satisfying read on the artist. It ended up being much easier than it looked.
The aura, or energy, of private and arcane ritual wafts from the work like boiling fat. There is a briar pipe crafted with two stems that’s evocative of Native American ceremony or the (equally potent) act of sharing a milkshake. There’s a t-shirt carrying the slogan ‘GNOME FONDLER’ that’s stained and starched, formidably, with a yellowy patina one has to assume is semen. Several pieces deal with the gameplay of tethering and restraint, from the kinky-but-familiar (a Breuer chair outfitted with cuffs, mirrors and tubes that suggest tangible sexual utility) to the wildly abstruse (five black leather lace-up shoes, two pairs and an orphan, leashed on individual 20-inch chains to a single bracket). A six-foot bunny suit in golden nylon hangs on the wall. Statistically speaking, few people play like this.
Assemblages of relics embalmed in bell jars, packed in flight cases, or scattered in glass vitrines seem to embalm moments in the artist’s creative life. A Plexiglas box holds a squashed composition of paperbacks, perhaps from a few months’ of nightstand accumulation, or an afternoon of cosmic connections at a musty bookseller. There’s a pair of plastic squeezy bottles in the shape of pigs, extra anthropomorphized with stick-on eyes and little felt costume parts, from a night of experimental voodoo, or dress-up. October Chain, a big charm necklace, is overwhelmed by colorful oversized plastic adornment–two afro combs, a prayer card and a playing card, some twist ties, unidentifiable urban refuse–that makes a power object from filthy Brooklyn blocks. The instinct here, an affinity for collated and contained evidence, is the surreal magic stuff of Josephs Cornell and Beuys, or the crime scene grime of Dieter Roth and Paul McCarthy. These sculptures are record and reconstruction. Yet you still missed the original event.
The surprising reveal regarding Nayland Blake is that he is a plainspoken, sincere, and unguarded being. He writes online at a great clip, and his entries imply pure and unfiltered self-awareness. “A reminder: it’s enough to record impressions; do that enough and you end up expressing opinions,” said the artist in a post-Christmas post extolling the virtues of geeky English man of letters Alan Bennett. The simplest axioms for living as an artist pepper Blake’s searching prose and they compel the viewer into believing that Blake, more than relishing what’s possible behind closed doors, is looking to live in a way that produces answers.
A viewer of this exhibition can opt to be boxed out and excluded by its otherness or obfuscation, or they can choose to muck in, figuring out the work’s kinks or their own in a space that is safe and nurturing. Coded visual symbols (think hankerchiefs in jean back pockets) and vocabulary are traditionally the techniques of fringe and minority groups–the better to keep threatening elements out. That’s true, and that’s fine. More fruitfully, though, when considering a barrier of coding, is the idea that it protects those inside, and it allows transgressive behavior to evolve, and figure itself out, within an insulated realm. Once there, sharing in an act of creation and discovery, you’re not missing anything.-Bones
Behavior is up at Location One, on Greene Street just north of Canal, until February 14th. This Friday, at 6pm, Blake will be restaging Gorge, a 1998 performance in which the audience is encouraged to feed the artist as much as they want while he sits, shirtless, in front of a table of food. Free and open to the public, I offer my heartiest endorsement of this event.
Next week, Bones stakes out the corner of 60th Street and 5th Avenue to find out what millions of passing and normal people make of Christian Jankowski, a gifted young German artist with three sculptures on show at this busy intersection through the spring.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 8, 2009