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LOS ANGELES — “What does it mean to try to make work that has space for other people in it?” Nayland Blake asked recently during the installation of the current retrospective No Wrong Holes: Thirty Years of Nayland Blake at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), Los Angeles. Blake has eschewed easy categorization throughout their career (Blake uses gender neutral pronouns), incorporating motifs from the BDSM scene, medical equipment, pop music, food, and stuffed animals to investigate race, sexuality, and gender. One through-line across their sculptures, videos, and performances is the invitation to participate, either literally or figuratively. In some works, this takes a playful tone, but sometimes, often in the same work, there is a more foreboding quality.
Take, for instance, “Feeder 2” (1998), a life-size gingerbread house whose appetizing aroma fills the ICA’s galleries. It recalls warm childhood rituals of baking with family, but has a darker connotation as the cottage of the carnivorous witch in the Hansel and Gretel fairytale. According to the story, the children came upon the gingerbread house in the woods and started eating its roof, only to be enslaved by the witch. When “Feeder 2” was shown at the Tang Teaching Museum in upstate New York, audience members were so enticed by the work that they surreptitiously nibbled bits of the walls. (Blake says it is edible, but probably not very tasty due to the structural material.)
“My work is always about people being able to sort of mentally try it on, mentally get inside the suit, or to see the effort of me trying to learn this dance, or to think about eating food,” they said.
One work that the audience is actually supposed to touch is “Ruins of Sensibility” (1972–2002), a DJ setup with hundreds of records from Blake’s personal collection. Interested parties can sign up for DJ slots each day that the exhibition is open, selecting from Blake’s eclectic archive featuring avant-jazz legend Anthony Braxton, all-female rock group the Shaggs, punk pioneer Iggy Pop, and much more. A painting in the style of Jackson Pollock that Blake says they painted at the age of four with their father hangs above the record stacks, a stand-in for the artist watching over the proceedings.
“To create a kind of play space for somebody else is to me the best way for that project to live,” they said. “I think that there’s something powerful when it’s running and you realize that you’re providing the soundtrack for other people’s experience in a museum.”
Blake was born in 1960 and raised on Manhattan’s upper West Side, the son of an African American father and white mother. They attended Bard College (where they are now the chair of the ICP-Bard MFA program) before heading West to get their MFA at CalArts just outside of Los Angeles. The move would knock Blake out of their comfort zone. “I had figured out a way to be charming and successful at Bard, and CalArts made me realize that there’s larger stakes than that,” they recalled.
After graduating in 1984, Blake chose to move to San Francisco rather than follow most of their classmates to the artistic center of New York or then-emergent Los Angeles. (“I don’t drive so staying in LA wasn’t really viable,” they joked.) “San Francisco was at that time not really looked at by the mainstream art world and it was also the queer capital,” they said. “I was fortunate enough to be part of an influx of people into the Bay Area who basically didn’t know what the rules were for how you were supposed to conduct yourself, and so we were able to make up a whole bunch of stuff and entertain ourselves.
“I always want artists to know that there are other possibilities, and that you can really make your own path. It’s important to have time where you can screw around and people are not paying attention to it.”
Blake landed in San Francisco during the height of the AIDS crisis and their work reflected the reality of a community under siege. One of the first works in the ICA LA show is a flag bearing the word “DUST,” using the same font as the logo of the popular San Francisco gay bar, the Stud. Blake rearranged the letters, turning a term of sexual bravado into a reminder of mortality.
Blake’s other works from the 1980s resemble medical devices, or instruments of confinement, torture, or BDSM play. The body is absent but implied, the viewer meant to imagine themselves in various physical situations.
In one work, a stainless steel table holds cartons of tar, mops, and a basin, as a chain with restraints hangs from above, a pristine kit for the brutal punishment of tarring and feathering. “Which one are you?” the work seems to ask us, “the one in shackles, or the one committing torture?”
Around the time that Blake moved back to New York in 1996, they began to focus more intently on race and on the notion of “passing” that they experience as a light-skinned, biracial person. A turning point was their inclusion in the Black Male exhibition at the Whitney in 1994, curated by Thelma Golden. “That was one of the most important moments of my career, because I had not been visible to the art world,” they recall, “like people didn’t get that I was Black until Thelma put me in that show.”
No Wrong Holes is filled with costumes, avatars, and disguises that serve both as symbols of individual expression, but also socially constructed identities. “There are toys and costumes that are about the relationship between one’s appearance or presentation and then one’s lived experience or how one experiences systems like racism or homophobia or misogyny.”
A prominent alter-ego for Blake is the rabbit, a playful trickster that has roots in African folk tales as well as racist connotations from American popular culture. In the video “Starting Over” (2000), Blake wears a ridiculously oversized bunny suit weighing 146 pounds — the weight of their partner at the time, Philip Horvitz. As they perform simple dance moves dictated by Horvitz offscreen, they become increasingly exhausted, finally collapsing. The video is a humorous yet disturbing meditation on the challenges of relationships.
Next to the video stands the “Gnomen,” a bear-bison hybrid costume that Blake calls their “fursona,” a reference to furry culture which Blake is involved in. (“It’s one thing to talk about your stuffed animal, but what does it mean to be somebody else’s stuffed animal?” they asked.) During the recent New Museum group show Trigger, they wore the outfit in the museum’s lobby, soliciting secrets from visitors.
Blake had early success with their inclusion in the 1991 Whitney Biennial and the Black Male show in 1994, but No Wrong Holes is significantly Blake’s most comprehensive survey, and their first institutional show in Los Angeles. Blake is the first to admit that their refusal to stick to one aesthetic path has made it harder to gain mass appeal with curators and collectors. “Why not try to make every sort of thing in every sort of way if I had the chance?” they asked. “I knew in some ways from the beginning that that was going to narrow the audience for what I do.”
Despite the challenges that Blake’s work may present in the art market, they just had a show of recent work at Matthew Marks Gallery in West Hollywood cheekily titled Nayland Blake’s Opening, featuring recent assemblages, bondage-inspired sculptures, and candles that spell out LOVE — a timeless affirmation expressed through a cheap novelty item intended to fade into smoke. Although Matthew Marks may have a high-powered gallery today, when Blake began showing with him in 1992, he didn’t even have a space yet. “It’s kind of funny to see what it has grown into, right?” they laugh.
As playful as No Wrong Holes is, there is a darkness, a sense of danger, of loss, of history, both personal and political. The power of Blake’s work is in welcoming visitors into that messy, complicated, funny, tragic world. As in “Feeder 2,” there is a sweetness coupled with menace. Blake’s work is not simply provocative, but an honest reflection of their lived experience. As they put it, “to me the process of making work is about me trying to externalize my internal stuff as it is.”
No Wrong Holes: Thirty Years of Nayland Blake continues at the Institute for Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (1717 E 7th St, Downtown, Los Angeles) through January 26, 2020.