Los Angeles

Nayland Blake, Crossing Object (Inside Gnomen), 2017, mixed media, approx. 72 × 34 × 34".

Nayland Blake, Crossing Object (Inside Gnomen), 2017, mixed media, approx. 72 × 34 × 34".

Nayland Blake

Nayland Blake, Crossing Object (Inside Gnomen), 2017, mixed media, approx. 72 × 34 × 34".

“NO WRONG HOLES” is the apt title of Nayland Blake’s most comprehensive survey to date, on display at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles—apt because it immediately opens onto the wit, optimism, and profundity that characterizes the artist’s work. Though ambitious in scope, this survey is not, strictly speaking, the artist’s first. That honor goes to Blake’s MFA thesis exhibition at CalArts, which was styled as a retrospective with the saccharine title “Nayland Blake, The Wonder Years: 1982–84.” Excoriating the growing cult of personality around contemporary artists, Blake opened their show with an enlarged headshot in which they look boyishly queer, with curly hair cascading down their forehead just so. The main event of that retrospective was a reproduction of the most absurdly literal of mythicizing curatorial tactics: Blake installed their own worktable in the gallery. The artist has always been acutely aware of how they and their work may (or may not) be readily consumable within the format of a monographic exhibition.

Be that as it may, the efforts of curator Jamillah James are notable in that her survey eschews the format’s most hackneyed schemata—strict chronological ordering, cheesily christened thematic rooms, overt aggrandizement—and instead revels in the materials and concepts that undergird Blake’s decades of work. What emerge are thrilling iterations of the artist’s thoughts on power, race, gender, pleasure, and performance, as well as on ingestion, gnomes, and puppetry. The first room contains pieces that explicitly address the erotic significance of various materials associated with power. Mirror Restraint, 1988–89, in which an anchored steel bar and attached leather collar are flanked by steel-and-mirror portals, shares space with Dust, 2012, a polyester flag bearing the rearranged letters of stud, referring, in this case, to the name of a long-running bar in South of Market, San Francisco. Long on the brink of closure, the venue remains open only because a group of committed queer folks came together to collectively run it. Blake’s banner announces their affinity with the space and extols the minor, inconclusive, and dissipated remains of its history. In arranging these works together, James connects the materiality of leather (as a useful erotic extension that complicates binary models of power) with the vicissitudes of communal belonging and coalition politics.

Nayland Blake, Mirror Restraint, 1988–89, mirror, steel, leather, two mirrors, steel pole. Installation view. Photo: Jeff McLane.

In James’s expansive curatorial conceit, weirdness and inconsistency are not merely tolerated but embraced. Such is the case with Device for Burning Bees and Sugar, 1990, which shares the sleek stylings of the artist’s contemporaneous “kit” assemblages while diverging from them with the inclusion of a bowl of desiccated bee bodies, a material unique to this sculpture. Other kits on view are cool and menacing—Work Station #5, 1989, for example, is structured by a small metal table on casters from which dangle cleavers on chains. Device for Burning Bees and Sugar, by contrast, suggests an abstract alchemical or homeopathic procedure and is lighter on the erotic force. Another example of a distinctive work in the exhibition is Untitled, 2008, an airy assemblage of wire, chain, beads, and plastic, strung together to resemble a Gego sculpture on a disco bender. The work’s glamour registers in a queer octave, with the tacky faux gems and round mirrored sequins standing in for the more heroic masculine materials of some of Blake’s other works.

Nayland Blake, Dust, 2012, print on polyester, 72 × 49 1⁄2".

The ICA’s survey ends where it begins: with costume’s ambivalent significations and uses. The final gallery features the video Starting Over, 2000, in which the artist follows tap-dancing instructions while wearing a weighted bunny suit; the sculptural kit Equipment for a Shameful Epic, 1993, which contains all the elements needed to stage a Reagan-era political-protest play; and Crossing Object (Inside Gnomen), 2017, a physical incarnation of the artist’s bear-bison “fursona” festooned with ribbons and buttons that index secrets softly spoken to Gnomen during performances at the New Museum in 2017–18. In these works, dressing up is fraught and liberatory (imagine playing Reagan, a political leader whose inaction on the HIV/AIDS pandemic assured its swift growth), an awful gift and solemn heresy. Starting Over is particularly moving; the out-of-frame directions are spoken by Blake’s then partner Philip Horvitz (a performance artist and choreographer), whom Blake obeys with greater or lesser success given the physical limitations imposed by the 147-pound costume.

Hanging above the gallery’s exit in large gold plastic letters, and highlighting the tensions that thread through the exhibition, is the phrase it’s kiss or kill, the final words of X’s song “We’re Desperate.” Given Blake’s impassioned embrace of a polymorphous perversity, one would hope most viewers will see the exhibition’s (literal) final words as a false binary choice. 

“No Wrong Holes: Thirty Years of Nayland Blake” is on view through January 26, 2020; travels to MIT List Visual Arts Center, Cambridge, MA, May 15–July 26, 2020.

Andy Campbell is an assistant professor of Critical Studies at USC Roski School of Art and Design. His Book Bound Together: Leather, Sex, Archives, and Contemporary Art is forthcoming from Manchester University Press.