Los Angeles

Nayland Blake

Richard Kuhlenschmidt Gallery

This show consisted of six artworks, all 1989, and functioned as a philosophical game of three against three: transcendent words versus sinister objects. At the same time, it resembled a lesson plan, with viewers as the submissive pupils, and the artist as the subversive instructor.

The word team begins with lesson one, Schatzman Hallucination Guide. Written in ink on a blackboard is the following: “Construct a sentence to render the event in words. Withdraw consciousness from the event. Deny the previous steps, the next steps, and the denials. Change the subject, verb or object of the sentence and form a new positive sentence. Picture the new sentence with an image. Project the image into perceptual space.” This is followed by lesson two, in smaller type: Edgar Allan Poe’s short story Berenice, printed on four blackboards, two blocks of text per board. The story, which anchors Blake’s work and casts its morose shadow over the entire show, involves a tortured narrator who circuitously expounds on illness, disfigurement, loss, and the impossibility of true physical experience.

The third and final lesson is an epiphany, written in latex and Letraset on mahogany, in four gilded frames (Untitled 1979). In each picture one finds a dash of green paint and the isolated letters Y, M, C, A, (the disco song) as well as the words DIE, YOUNG, STAY, PRETTY (lyrics from a Blon-die song). These references to gay hedonism and punk nihilism take on a bizarre tone given the contemporary social climate and they make the recent past seem like ancient history.

The first of the three objects is Kit #2 (poisoning). It is a kit for poisoning oneself, consisting of apricots, strychnine, water, and cloth, laid out on a spindly aluminum stand. The kit also comes with a black cardboard carrying case. From a distance the set-up looks like the ingredients for a magic show, a disappearing act. Here the professor becomes a possible suicide accomplice.

Work Station #4 is another display on a low aluminum table. At one end is a wool blanket rolled up into a tight bundle with two black straps buckled around its middle. At the other end of the table are a group of lurid little things, conspicuously arranged two inches from each other: two metal pans, a capped metal bottle, and two long stemmed rods under a white folded towel, their smooth sloping edges coming to a point. An operation of sorts is implied: a fear-inducing fiction of clinical environments, utter helplessness, and cerebral collusion, like a camping trip with William Burroughs’ malignant practitioner, Dr. Benway.

Restraint #6 (ankle, shelf, mirror) looks like a straightforward sadomasochistic sex device. A sheet of polished steel is bolted to the wall. At the bottom protrudes a shelf, and dangling from the shelf, 24 inches apart, are two leather ankle straps. At the top is a thick bar with three shower rings. Although the use is unspecified, the message is clear.

The lessons Blake offers read as a direct and graceful reaction to the AIDS crisis. Life has its unusual implements to assist the population in existence and extinction. Blake’s impulse is to mix the ornate with the contemporary. He contrasts Poe’s gothic obsession with death with his own sterilized assemblages of disaster. The result is a compelling fetishized circle.

Benjamin Weissman