PRINT November 1990


What we are given . . . is abundant evidence of a masculine ideal that directs and reinforces behavior; one which, by posing as a norm, impels adaptation to a constructed situation. . . . Sexual difference should not be seen as a function of gender . . . but as a historical formation, continually produced, reproduced and rigidified in signifying practices.
—Kate Linker, “Representation and Sexuality”

CURRENT INTELLECTUAL FASHION dictates an automatic distrust of the historical record as it has been (falsely) constructed by dominant culture. Still, history, simply by repeating itself, can teach us how hard it is to learn from our mistakes. The past is constantly being revived or reinterpreted; variations of the same tale, told over and over again. And what is this story about, this idea that never loses its interest for us? It’s about power and control, often enacted through sex, understood both as an act and as a fact of gender and identity; about choice, and the power of choice; about desire and need, pleasure and pain. It is the story of government, in the pre-Enlightenment sense of the word: spiritual as well as political guidance, provided through the structuring of relationships on every level, ranging from those within the self (the link of mind to body) to the directions given by parent to child, pastor to congregation, president to nation. It’s a comedy of economies, both domestic and libidinal.

Drawing on both historical and fictional narrative, Nayland Blake’s discursively conceptual objects present themselves to us as the text and prompts of a dialogue between the gay world and the cultural matrix in which it is embedded. His combination of both “true” and “imaginary” material contributes to the eloquence of this conversation, especially when considered in the context of the new historicism—an attempt to polyvocalize readings of the past by using methods developed in feminist criticism and semiology. Like others in the field, Blake practices a kind of historical-revisionist guerrilla activity, eliciting new meanings through new readings.

In a sense, Blake’s work represents the acts and passions of gay men as a marginalized group, demonstrating that their approach to basic power relationships “serves to challenge or disrupt the structures and confidences of a dominant language.”1 The particular construction of desire and pleasure implied in the sadomasochistic practices invoked by many of Blake’s sexually charged constructions is uncomfortable to contemplate, but not because it implies a rejection of dominant culture. Rather, it is a reflection of it: a partial, almost parodic, but often disturbingly honest mirroring of a rigid sex-role-linked aggression and passivity. As Kate Linker reminds us, “What is at issue is a critique of patriarchy which, Freud, noted, is equivalent to human civilization.”2

Blake’s reframing of psychosexual history is also intended to make us aware of the gay subculture’s prescient concern with issues that have now become major preoccupations in contemporary art and culture. This proto-post-Modernism has included both an awareness of how gender-role formation contributes to an alienation or dislocation from the body and an ironic focus on ways in which self-representation (both for the majority culture and its minority satellites) is modified by (late) capitalism.

Much of the image/text work of the last decade, by such artists as Barbara Kruger, Hans Haacke, Jenny Holzer, and Victor Burgin, has examined aspects of either or both of these concerns, often turning words on themselves, using the tools and techniques of commercial persuasion for entirely different ends from those for which they were originally intended. Although text makes a frequent appearance in Blake’s pieces, it appears to function differently than it does in the work of these other artists. The focus of the act of “reading” (both words and the objects they have been made part of) is on the psychological quality of the narrative that is being presented. In works like Untitled (Berenice), 1989, in which an entire short story by Edgar Allan Poe was screened with ink onto four chalkboards, Blake points our attention not so much to what is being said as to how. The morbidly sexual, oppressively repressed inflection of Poe’s Victorian prose—“the teeth! —they were here, and there, and everywhere, . . . visibly and palpably before me; long, narrow, and excessively white”—becomes more important than the story being told.

As the text becomes objectified, the objects themselves become words: parts of speech in a new language Blake is trying to frame, using sex as a metaphor for power, in order to articulate ideas that can’t be expressed through the familiar phallocentric dialect of representation. The undertext of this disquisition is about freedom and control—the loss of both, and the rage and alienation attendant to that loss, as well as the desire to have them back.

God had stated the penalty for disobedience—death. In passing sentence upon the first woman, Jehovah said: “I shall greatly increase the pain of your pregnancy; in birth pangs you will bring forth children, and your craving will be for your husband, and he will dominate you.”
—Watchtower Bible Society, Look! I Am Making All Things New

AnOther World
Although the pieces in his installations can function independently, Blake’s shows have an orchestrated, cinematic quality: that pleasurable feeling of something big and complicated enough to get inside of, of parallel story lines that eventually converge into a satisfying resolution. In composing his work, Blake admits to being strongly influenced by two sites of memory—the natural history museum and the movie house. The results sometimes suggest the props from a double bill of Hunky Men and Hatchet Weekend, preserved in old-fashioned cases and bell jars. The sets from which these compelling inventions have come seem oddly similar: the torture chamber, the classroom, the laboratory. After all, as Gilles Deleuze notes in “Coldness and Cruelty,”3 the discourse of sadism is interminably, oppressively demonstrative. There is something peculiarly educational going on here, although sex isn’t necessarily the subject.

The erratically erotic didacticism of these implied stories is further enhanced by the combination of found and fabricated elements in many of the pieces. Blake uses a variety of materials, ranging from thrift-shop taxidermy—faintly Victorian flotsam cast up on the second-hand edge of culture—to the entirely, aggressively new—gleaming stainless-steel racks, shelves, and cleavers, fresh, bright chain and virgin rubber, spotless chalkboards covered with neatly printed words.

What these seemingly disparate combinations of often uncomfortably evocative materials have in common is that in every case they are actual, physical things, not two-dimensional representations. As such, they are compelling in a way paintings or even photographs can’t be. Blake’s interest in objects as the most suitable vehicle for ideas follows the drift of the last ten years of art history, during which the wandering pointer on the art world’s wheel of fortune has slid away from painting, landing squarely on sculpture. Bombarded with the fictionally seductive images of a media-trashed landscape, both artists and viewers seem to want something they can get a grip on, so to speak. Furthermore, although various strains of formalism have flourished and prospered in the hands of artists like Martin Puryear, Grenville Davey, or Richard Deacon, the conceptually weighted and framed Object currently dominates the field.

In many cases, the use of found/appropriated material in this kind of work is directed toward a critique of popular culture, examining consumption as well as the hunger, stimulated by the media, that precedes it. Blake addresses this desire in his use of a high production-value, boutique-style presentation. In specific pieces like Queer for Days, 1990, for example, stacks of elegantly boxed T-shirts, each bearing the single word “queer,” cluster in a corner. The T-shirt with a message—souvenir, talisman, and signifier all rolled into one—is the most universal of fashion statements, worn by people of every race, age, class, and gender. The majority of Blake’s “readymades,” however, seem closer in spirit to Dada, and in particular to Marcel Duchamp, than they do to the works of Libidinal Economists like Haim Steinbach, Jeff Koons, or Ashley Bickerton.

Heart of Glass

MIKE: All art involves craftsmanship.
ELAINE: Dada didn’t.
MIKE: Yes, but Neo-Dada does. As soon as any gesture is repeated, craft is involved. . . .
NORMAN: Why Dada again? You don’t want to return to the same thing twice in a row.
MIKE: Say, what kind of love life do you have?

—Frank O’Hara, “5 Participants in a Hearsay Panel”

A widely held view of the Dadaists as a bunch of fun-loving pranksters ignores the serious attempt made by both Dada and Surrealism to attack repressive and hypocritical social values. The preoccupation with eroticism characteristic of both of these movements is nowhere as focused or as deeply considered as it is in the work of Duchamp, for whom it was a means of revealing “things that are constantly hidden—and that aren’t necessarily erotic—because of the Catholic church, because of social rules.”4

Duchamp’s ideas are clearly important to Blake in the development of a thesis regarding the systematic repression of sexuality. To Blake, Duchamp’s female persona, Rrose Sélavy, represents an exploration of an ambivalent, blended continuum of gender, as opposed to a sharp division between male and female defined by the presence or absence of a penis. The alienation of the self caused by the denial of its opposite-gender components, which is implicit in such a division, is resolved symbolically both by Rrose and by Princess CoCo, Blake’s alter ego. CoCo has appeared in readings and performances, as well as on a magazine cover, as befits royalty.

In “The Schreber Suite,” 1989, a group of works that represent Blake’s most ambitious reformulation of history to date, the writings of Daniel Paul Schreber are used as the vehicle for a metaphorical examination of these linked issues of physical alienation and ambisexuality. The memoirs of this delusional paranoid (published in 1903, about ten years before the birth of Dada) document Schreber’s progressive obsession with the idea that he was being transformed into a woman. As part of this supposed alienation from his male body, he was convinced that he was being attacked by the sun and, becoming transparent, would gradually disappear.

Blake’s meditations on Schreber reflect on the significance of this narrative to the development of an alternative art and culture—one that refuses phallocentricity by trying to represent a continuum of sexual expression. In a series of pieces that work almost like the sections of an essay, Blake presents the viewer with two texts: Schreber’s simultaneous but highly conflicted self-identification as man and woman, and the elaborate cosmology of spiritual powers he invented to accommodate his delusions. This cosmology is the focus of the central piece in the installation, titled Diagram of the Heavens. It consists of a group of glass shelves etched with the names Schreber gave to the different parts of his universe, arranged according to the hierarchy prescribed in his writings. Rendered in an elegant old-fashioned typeface, the names are only visible as cast shadows on the wall. Without the light that Schreber so feared, his universe disappears. A reference is also being made to Duchamp’s Large Glass, which, like Schreber’s elaborate cosmology, represents both a closed system and a private language.

The Shadow Court

History has been the text of the dead dictated to the living, through a voice which cannot speak for itself. The ventriloquist that balances corpses on its knee. . . . The teller of the story. The worker of mute mouths.
—Barbara Kruger and Phil Mariani, introduction to Remaking History

A prop is an object that exists in an ambivalent space between presence and absence.
—Nayland Blake, artist’s statement

Puppets, as the manipulated mechanical representations of the human presence they stand in for (sometimes acting more convincingly than their masters), are the ideal props of Blake’s theater of philosophy. In European puppet drama, in the Wayang Kulit (the Indonesian shadow opera), and especially in American cartoons, the outcome is inevitable, the order of events almost invariable: there is an encounter between characters followed by conversation that climaxes in chaotic violence. (This is the reverse of Sadean discourse, in which violence is the main course, with talk served up afterward with hot chocolate as dessert.) In “Punch Agonistes,” Blake’s show in Los Angeles this spring, this threat/promise of violence becomes Blake’s vehicle for a sardonic disquisition on the castration fear central to the most prevalent interpretation of Freud’s theories. The leitmotiv of the narrative created by the group of works included in the show is Punch himself—the familiar little puppet figure with a big nose and chin. He serves as the ironic stand-in for Samson, the heroic male figure referred to in the show’s parodistic title.5 Appearing at the installation’s beginning, middle, and end, the phallic little fellow is more like Everyman than a leading man. We have met the animus, and he is us.

In Toy (After B.R.), 1990, a ragged cluster of puppet heads hangs on silk cord suspended from a black velvet rod. Their dull tanned color is reminiscent of shrunken aboriginal trophies. On an adjacent wall, Kit #10, 1990, offers the viewer ghastly excerpts from horror fiction. These terse paragraphs—details of a dismemberment or the moments leading up to it—are punctuated by gloomy images of skulls leaning on books: enlarged bookplate engravings of the common theme of the mortality of the flesh/the immortality of literature. Both words and pictures were silk-screened directly onto the wall in an ink the color of dried blood, crusts of which stained the edges of the screens propped along the length of a narrow steel shelf below. The stories, in turns hilarious and terrifying, are interchangeable Freudian nightmares. In one, for example, a swimmer’s leg (hmmm, what could that represent, I wonder?) is clipped off by a giant crab.

In Scum, 1990, a lengthy text has been printed, like subtitles from hell, onto one of Blake’s neat green schoolroom accessories. What this chalkboard bears is the entirety of Valerie Solanas’ SCUM Manifesto.6 Its caustic descriptions of male inadequacy, both physical and emotional, punctuated with confident exhortations for the mass genocide, enslavement, or (of course) castration of men, is laid out on the immaculate slate like the Declaration of Independence. Reading any part of it conjures up an almost audible scream of anxiety, like the sound of fingernails dragged across its pristine surface. By presenting Solanas’ rant in this context, Blake both lampoons heterosexual culture’s obsessive focus on the phallus and laments the loss of emotions implicit in such an obsession.

The various machines and devices included in the installation take on, in this context, a sort of prosthetic function, hinting at the cathartic violence of puppet sex—Punch and Judy whacking each other with big sticks. There is something almost comic, yet just as tragic, about the exaggerated weirdness of the activities proposed by Restraint (Neck Prod), for example, or the possible use implied by the two yoked bins full of used rubber tubing in Transport #3 (both 1990).

Future Shock
Frequently, Blake’s design for some piece of enigmatic equipment used in the performance of some indescribable, impossible, excessive act suggests a ritual device or artifact of another (or, anOther) culture. Why are there eight cleavers, for instance, chained to the display rack in Work Station #5, 1989? And what sexual or social impulse would lead to chaining a cluster of men’s dress shoes to the wall, as they are in an untitled 1989 piece?

One series in particular highlights this ironic artifictional practice. Blake has made several “Book Pieces,” each consisting of a short stack of ’70s pop-pulp paperbacks encased/preserved in Plexiglas. The time-warp mantra of titles in these groupings—Serpico, Laetrile, Mandingo—suggests the ethnographer’s eager, ignorant desire to preserve the most meaningless details of the subject of his study. One book piece, for example, brings together a complete set of Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock: one each, that is, of the five different ghastly colors it came in.

By making these collections, Blake shows that he is aware of the problems presented in speaking as the Voice of the Other. The fact that we can hardly remember what any of these “preserved” titles refers to demonstrates that the only culture you can fix in place is a dead one—something Margaret Mead never quite figured out.

A living culture like Blake’s, or like the one we uneasily negotiate daily, is mutable, syncretic, shifting. The only gay culture Blake records with finality is the bar-and-bathhouse world of unsafe sex, memorialized in works like H/O/S, 1986, a pickled pornographic novel floating in a Victorian bell jar. That time is gone, he reminds us, and departed with it are both an unparalleled freedom of sexual expression and an aggressive, cock-focused physicality: pleasure divorced from feeling.

There’s a message in Blake’s bottle, in these fables of contemporary culture. The good news is that with effort, education, and humor, we are all capable of the enlightened polysexuality Blake sees as an integral part of gay culture. The bad news is that all of us, both gay and straight, wear the perverse restraints of history, morality, and fear, like Blake’s little leather cuffs or shining chains.

Post-Modern Postscript
These readings of Blake’s work seem so particular to our time. The possibility exists that this entire body of work will be completely enigmatic to a later generation, or represent an entirely different constellation of meanings. Perhaps, as Duchamp avers, art isn’t immortal, and its purpose is more pragmatic than lofty: to teach us something useful about ourselves.

After forty or fifty years a picture dies, because its freshness disappears. Sculpture also dies. . . . Afterward, it’s called the history of art.
—Marcel Duchamp, conversation with Pierre Cabanne

Maria Porges is a writer and artist living in Oakland, California.



1. Brian Wallis, “Telling Stories: A Fictional Approach to Artists’ Writings,” in Blasted Allegories, New York: New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1987, p. xiii.
2. Kate Linker, “Representation and Sexuality,” in Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation, ed. Brian Wallis, New York: New Museum of Contemporary Art, and Boston: Godine, 1984, p. 392.
3. Gilles Deleuze, “Coldness and Cruelty,” in Masochism, New York: Zone Books, 1989.
4. Marcel Duchamp (in conversation with Pierre Cabanne), from Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, New York: Viking Press, 1971, p. 67.
5. Blake is clearly referring both to John Milton’s play Samson Agonistes and to T.S. Eliot’s Sweeney Agonistes, the protagonist of his poem The Waste Land.
6. SCUM, founded by Valerie Solanas, was dedicated to the violent overthrow of male domination. It is interesting to note that as unpleasantly, vituperatively detailed as the manifesto is, the only man Solanas ever actually attacked was Andy Warhol.