San Francisco

Nayland Blake

Anglim Gilbert Gallery

For this recent show, Nayland Blake exhibited the results of a grueling self-imposed task: to produce one artwork per day for a month. Despite the fact that no single piece represents a sustained effort—A Week of White Skin Masks (4-20-97) (all works 1997), a set of white rabbit pelts hung from a rope traversing the ceiling, is decidedly lightweight—what is remarkable is that most of the work on view is noteworthy in one way or another. The effortless-seeming wall piece Found Ghost (4-28-9), consisting of nothing more than a gauzy white kerchief arranged to suggest a rabbit’s head, is a case in point. In the context of the exhibition, this simple gesture—its poverty of means, the racist overtones of the image of the ghost (the “spook”), the image of the rabbit (a figure Blake has used as his surrogate for years)—becomes saturated with meaning. But beyond individual works, a crucial point is that Blake exhibited whatever resulted from these strict conditions of production—it is a show in which the means determine the ends.The exhibition stands as a kind of glum allegory of artistic production: making art is seen as a compulsory day-in, day-out job.

The thirty rather small and unassuming mixed-media sculptures and drawings strewn across the gallery floor and covering its walls and ceiling contain a cornucopia of references, allusions, and musings on racism, black-white relations, homophobia, sexual identity, and gender issues. Blake succeeds in weaving together these complex and disparate parts through the assemblage-like works that preserve the integrity of found objects while creating new meaning through their combination, doubling, and juxtaposition. Double Votive (4-12-97) is a predominantly brown cluster of good-luck charms (long braids of brown hair, a brown rabbit’s foot) and other objects like a chocolate-brown plastic bottle in the shape of a bunny, all connected by a thick metal chain. It recalls a West African juju and evokes a wild (though surprisingly cohesive) set of associations, including the white exoticization of black culture, the black exoticization of African culture, scatological humor, and the racist image of the ridiculously upbeat black man. In Burnt Cork Target (4-30-97), Blake used burnt cork to paint a target on the cross-section of a tree—evoking the blackface of a minstrel show as well as white supremacists torching crosses in front of black churches. In Mother and Child Reunion (4-26-97), a witch’s hat is outfitted with bunny ears, shorthanding various bunny associations (its cuddly and comforting nature plus all its connotations of excessive sexuality and filth) as well as those of witches (an exclusively female cohort historically vilified and persecuted). By positing a family relation between them in the title, Blake draws a firm connection between the victimization of gays and of women.

Some pieces are blunter than others, but most contain a dose of humor as well, such as Bottled Chocolate (4-29-97), in which two bottles of white and black chocolate are belted together with a strip of fake white fur. What makes the installation hang together as a whole is the autobiographical underpinnings. Blake himself encapsulates the work’s many vectors: he is a gay, light-skinned artist born to an interracial couple. But Blake’s strength is that he connects the personal to the general, ensuring that what could otherwise be onanistic is actually very generous.

Daniela Salvioni