San Francisco

Nayland Blake, Tool Box Again, 2012, nylon banner, ribbon, LOVE candle, faux candle with electric bulb, 15' x 24' x 4' 6".

Nayland Blake, Tool Box Again, 2012, nylon banner, ribbon, LOVE candle, faux candle with electric bulb, 15' x 24' x 4' 6".

Nayland Blake

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts/ Gallery Paule Anglim

Nayland Blake, Tool Box Again, 2012, nylon banner, ribbon, LOVE candle, faux candle with electric bulb, 15' x 24' x 4' 6".

Get together, reuse, remember, give something away: These are feel-good values, even if rubber bondage masks may be among the souvenirs. Nayland Blake’s recent pair of shows played ebulliently with innuendo. But “FREE!LOVE!TOOL!BOX!,” a group of interlocking installations at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, really did mean to proffer a tool kit for sustaining communal pleasures. Running concurrently at Gallery Paule Anglim, a miniretrospective—comprising just four works—was titled “Not Drowning, Waving.” Twenty-six years into his career and counting, Blake inverts Stevie Smith’s darkly comic 1957 poem on isolation and death (“Not Waving but Drowning”) to express a comically dark affirmation of survival and saying hi.

“FREE!LOVE!TOOL!BOX!” was organized as five “stations,” though the exhibition checklist identified fourteen named parts, and it felt like even more. The first station featured, Tool Box Again, 2012, a history-painting-size reproduction of Chuck Arnett’s mural for the legendary San Francisco leather bar the Tool Box. (An image of the mural appeared in a 1964 Life magazine article on “Homosexuality in America,” and Blake included a copy of the issue, displaying it in a reliquary of Styrofoam, Plexiglas, steel chains, and nylon straps.) The guys in Arnett’s image cluster close, as if to form one body, a sense of solidarity Blake emphasizes by connecting the figures with leashlike ribbons sutured to and draping off the banner. Nearby, a station titled “Maypole Way” was similarly ghostly yet festive: a plywood catwalk, carpeted with black rubber and decorated with a Felix Gonzalez-Torres–style lightbulb string installed beside a maypole-shaped assemblage festooned with banners reading dust—an anagram for Stud, another famous SF bar. So perhaps the waving surfer whom Blake celebrates died after all. The show comprises, in a way, scenes from his afterlife. But ashes to ashes, funk to funky, his memories seem happy.

Nearby, a station titled “Video Studio,” was a side room appointed with gold Mylar panels, more dressing-room lights, and a tutu. No one, on the days I visited, went in. No one pranced on the catwalk, either, and this emptiness, combined with the convention center–esque YBCA space, sucked energy from the peppy installation. Visitors did contribute to a hall of graffiti, as well as to “Rest Area” (station five), a wall of shelves on which Blake invited people to leave items symbolizing “freedom, liberation, safety, beauty, creativity, excitement.” (Among the offerings: an empty half-pint of Wild Turkey, a faded Giants T-shirt, a studded collar, sets of keys, clay figurines, and a business card for the Kiwanis Club of Greater Napa. Blake himself supplied the single clown shoe and the s/m headgear.) Meanwhile, lone djs also enjoyed station three’s Ruins of a Sensibility, 2002, which offered up the artist’s collection of some two thousand LPs—acquired between 1977 and 2002 and presented here arranged on shelves beside a turntable deck—for anyone to browse and spin a set. Bowie, Yma Sumac, Devo, Nina Simone, the Butthole Surfers, the Partridge Family, Score Yourself Sexual I.Q. Test, and so on. All that was missing was a dancing crowd, a vital lack.

At Paule Anglim, two recent small sculptures reiterated the trope of chains as ties that bind, while an older suite of drawings, Bunny Group, 1997, brought Blake’s longtime mascot back into the mix. Br’er, Bugs, Peter, Harvey, the Energizer, Playboy; magician’s assistant; prolific copulator and shitter: The rabbit, for Blake, is perfectly polymorphously perverse. Nevertheless, in his new video Stab, 2012, the totem-animal becomes a sock monkey. Blake and a former boyfriend bought it. Then they split up, and Blake’s dog mauled the doll. Distraught, he brought it to Liz Collins, whose artist’s project Mend, 2012, offered “knitting interventions.” In Stab, Blake’s camera holds on Collins’s hands as she stitches up the mangled body in her lap; we hear Blake explain the monkey-boyfriend-dog backstory; he and Collins and two other women chat about cult films. The lesbian sewing circle saves the gay man’s treasured, injured past, and the community is present, finally, in real time. It’s sweet and simple. For us as viewers, though, it’s a DVD on a monitor—quite different from being at a party.

Frances Richard