New York

Nayland Blake

Location One

The OED tells us that the word behave derives from the Middle English “be + haven”—“to have” or, slightly differently, “to hold”—and that behavior, then, designates the manner in which one holds oneself. But though the dictionary doesn’t ascribe any inherent judgment to the term (one could behave very badly or with utter propriety or in any manner in between) there is built into its everyday use an assumption of the worst. One rarely brings up behavior if it’s good (unless as a way to reduce jail time!); and though ostensibly describing an individual’s actions, the word always serves to point out the proximity or distance of those actions to normalcy.

Marking the gap between the normative and his own comportment, Nayland Blake’s show at Location One—his first survey, curated by Maura Reilly—was titled “Behavior,” and offered a no-holds-barred look at the artist’s last three decades of work dedicated to quite particular perversions. Blake’s exhibition was strangely intimate in unexpected ways, offering so many glimpses into the ways in which one person holds himself, in more than one sense of the phrase. Blake’s practice, which is conceptually based but ranges vastly through materials and modes of production, is often associated with video and large-scale installation, but the scene at Location One was given over to more personal effects and the affects, or feelings, with which we invest them, incorporating as it did so much intimate stuff seemingly culled from bedside reading table or sex drawer.

Though much of Blake’s work is certainly tongue-in-cheek (Companion, 2006, is a T-shirt stained with what one assumes to be bodily fluids and printed with the words GNOME FONDLER; Heavenly Bunny Suit, 1994, a gold costume for the high-class “furry”; Homunculus, 1992, a strangely pathetic piece suggestive of s/m garb), there is, too, a kind of delicate campiness—if such a category can be argued—that hints at the seriousness of Blake’s endeavors. Indeed, one feels that however much these are objects bound to elicit a chuckle from their viewers, they also are meant to serve as memento mori of sorts, talismans that act as evidence of pleasures had, activities partaken in. It is notable that much of the work assembled in “Behavior” bends toward conventions of craft or kitsch, allowing for a kind of (tough) sweetness to surface—a sweetness at once crude and ruefully calculated. What Blake shores up in his work on queer sexuality and desire—that testing the limits of pleasure, pain, and the body itself requires an immense amount of trust between participants—hits an unexpectedly resonant pitch in works that don’t picture the body at all. Pieces like Restraint Shoes, 1988, in which five black shoes are strung from chains and bracketed to the wall, are at once literal and perplexing. In aiming to signify the body, they also complicate it—in what scenario, one must ask, would five shoes operate?

Some artworks in “Behavior” do not address sexuality head-on, though they, too, seem to constellate around its terms; a number of them are delicately abstract, such as a recent untitled cluster of seven variously colored Plexiglas rectangles that hover together, not quite paintings but nearly so. A piece from 1991, Bouquet #1, is a small, sad affair, cobbled together from wood, artificial leaves, and flowers. In these cases, objects that are generically elegiac are also mysteriously affective, and the viewer gets the sense that Blake is as serious about his mourning as he is about his sex. Indeed, in “Behavior,” there is a strange lightness to what is otherwise heavy and a heaviness to the otherwise light.

Johanna Burton