Artists Features ,

Serious Play: Nayland Blake’s Gifts from the Department of Transformation

Nayland Blake photographed in their Brooklyn apartment on January 7, 2019.
Nayland Blake photographed in their Brooklyn apartment on January 7, 2019.
HUNTER ABRAMS

‘This past weekend, I was at a queer BDSM sex party,” artist Nayland Blake was saying one cold morning in early January. Blake, who is 59 and began using they/them pronouns a few years ago, after many decades flouting rigid identities in their art, was sitting on a couch in their Brooklyn apartment and contrasting behavior in the art world with the rules of such subcultural gatherings.

“With these things, it’s like the spirit of potluck,” Blake said of the event they had recently attended. “Nobody eats unless everybody brings something. In the art world, everybody eats and nobody brings anything!” They burst into one of their hearty laughs, which are all the more jovial coming from beneath their enormous beard, a web of white hair that outdoes Karl Marx’s.

Blake explained how the party worked: “You have to have a buddy, and you and your buddy are responsible for each other’s behavior.” That format, Blake continued, helps put participants at ease. “How do you get a lot of people together who may not necessarily know each other and allow them to feel safe—people whose gender expressions may be complicated?” they said. “How do you get them to both feel safe and have a good time?”

Blake, for the record, has always been the type to bring something to the party, making sure that others, no matter how they define themselves, feel like they belong there. They have spent a prolific career not only making inventive sculptures and staging harrowing performances, but also presenting free-thinking curatorial projects; cartooning; writing; and teaching classes at universities and in the kink community.

At home in Brooklyn, the artist was sporting one of their typically exuberant outfits: a bright-orange flannel shirt, patterned leggings in an even richer shade of orange, a long brown skirt, a thick septum ring, and a camouflage vest. Simple glasses framed their piercing blue eyes. Blake wears their silver hair closely cropped—all business but for the beard—and has fairly pale skin. “Generally, I pass,” Blake, who identifies as multiracial, said in a 2016 interview with the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, “so I hear a lot of the shit that white people say when they don’t think that black people are around.”

The writer Lynne Tillman, who has taught alongside Blake at Bard College, is one of many peers to admire the artist’s polyvalent sense of self. Mentioning Blake’s shift in pronouns, she practically smiled through the phone, remarking that Blake “has multiple selves dancing all over the place and has for a long, long time.” Describing the artist’s identity as “queer, African-American, and a self-identified feminist, which is phenomenal,” curator Maura Reilly, who organized a 2009 survey of Blake’s work, proposed that “those three things coming together . . . make for an extraordinary artist and thinker and writer and curator.”

[Read more from the Spring 2019 edition of ARTnews: “The Name of This Issue Is Not Queer Art Now.”]

In September, the Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles will offer a chance to revel in Blake’s multifariousness, hosting the artist’s most comprehensive retrospective to date. Titled “No Wrong Holes,” it will highlight Blake’s enduring explorations of how diverse communities are created, how marginal histories are preserved, and, perhaps most fundamentally, how people connect. ICA chief curator Jamillah James, who’s organizing the show, said one aspect she is focusing on in Blake’s work is “the idea of the transactional and the interrelationships that people have with one another, and the power dynamics that emerge from that.”

Nayland Blake, Restraint Chair, 1989.
©NAYLAND BLAKE/COURTESY MATTHEW MARKS GALLERY

Questions of permission—how it is obtained, negotiated, and defined—have been at the core of Blake’s most important, and most discomfiting, works. Restraint Chair (1989) outfits a Marcel Breuer design with leather cuffs and metal shackles ready to hold a body for torture, examination, or display. In the video Gorge (1998), the artist is sitting in a chair, topless, while a black man, also sans shirt, feeds Blake an appalling amount of food, the scene pulsing with unspoken racial and sexual elements. And in Negative Bunny (1994), a fluffy toy begs the viewer to have sex, emphasizing that it’s been tested and is HIV free, its insistence going from cute to pathetic to menacing over the course of the 30-minute piece.

Bunny figurines, as it happens, were scattered around Blake’s apartment, tucked in among a wild array of objects: piles of books and comics; art by Margaret Kilgallen, Tom of Finland, and others; a Nintendo Switch gaming system. The animal has been a motif and, sometimes, a kind of mascot for Blake, and it has appeared in many of their key works—often cooking up mischief or encountering danger. In the video Starting Over (2000), the artist wears a white bunny costume weighing some 146 pounds (the weight of their partner at the time) and tap dances until they collapse from exhaustion. In other pieces by Blake, a rabbit is strung up by chains or diving down a hole next to a sign that reads “i betrayed my race.”

Speaking of their interest in rabbits, Blake drew an intriguing parallel in the Smithsonian interview, explaining that the animals are known for “shitting a lot and they’re known for fucking a lot” and that “gay men are . . . associated with, like, having a lot of sex, with being promiscuous, fucking like bunnies.” Blake has also connected them to Br’er Rabbit, the trickster figure of Southern lore with roots in African folk stories. In the artist’s hands, that wily animal has been reconceived in countless ways. More than a caricature or a cartoon, it’s a source of power, pain, freedom—a quicksilver signifier.

Of course, Blake isn’t the first contemporary artist to give such cuddly creatures starring roles. While preparing for the ICA retrospective, Blake was invited by the Dia Art Foundation in New York to give a lecture on Joseph Beuys, the gnomic German artist who cradled a dead hare in his arms in his 1965 performance How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare. “How the fuck do you talk about Beuys these days?” Blake exclaimed gleefully at Dia, clearly relishing the challenge of finding something new to say. They’d come to the conclusion that “I’d rather be the dead hare. I’d rather be the fluffy animal getting the pictures explained to them . . . than the person doing the explaining.”

A still from Nayland Blake's Starting Over, 2000, in which the artist wears a 146-pound bunny suit.
Still from Nayland Blake’s Starting Over, 2000, in which the artist wears a 146-pound bunny suit.
©NAYLAND BLAKE/COURTESY MATTHEW MARKS GALLERY

Blake was born in New York in 1960 and spent all of their formative years there, with parents who had essentially fled their native New Bedford, Massachusetts. Blake’s mother, who is white, was not quite 20 when she got pregnant with her future husband, a black man a few years older. “The person who objected the most to my parents’ marriage and my mom being pregnant . . . was her dad,” Blake said, and so the two settled on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, returning to Massachusetts with Blake for holidays.

One of Blake’s early memories is making a Jackson Pollock–style drip painting with their father, who had attended art school but worked as a building superintendent and later a computer programmer. Blake’s mother, after working as a secretary, ran a children’s resale clothing store and made custom Raggedy Ann dolls to bring in extra money. (Decades later, the artist developed a self-portrait in doll form—Cuddle Buddy [2015], a jolly bearded figure with outstretched arms—with the fashion duo Costello Tagliapietra, to raise funds for an LGBTQ+ artist-residency program on Fire Island.)

Blake also remembers being taken to Mets games—where the future artist ignored the action in favor of reading comic books—and museums, where their parents taught them the Western canon. Early enthusiasms included Joseph Cornell’s bewitching cabinets and José de Creeft’s Alice in Wonderland (1959) sculpture in Central Park: “It was characters from a world that I was aware of, that I identified with, that I could actually climb on or be inside of,” Blake said.

Blake encountered other such characters in the flesh, as a teenager immersed in the experimental art culture of 1970s New York. “My friends in high school were art nerds, avant-garde art nerds,” they said, flipping through a yearbook from the Bentley School and pointing out shots from the 11th Annual Avant Garde Festival that the artist and performer Charlotte Moorman staged at Shea Stadium in 1974. Blake’s circle screened a comedy show on public-access television, and Blake was thrilled to learn about Franklin Furnace, the downtown alternative space that accepted all artist-book submissions. The young artist also frequented the porn theaters around Times Square (spaces that later figured in a 2013 series of performances in which Blake gave tours of the now Disney-fied area, dressed as a drag queen by the name of Victorya Spectre). From all this, Blake absorbed the lessons of “art that didn’t need the structure of an art world.”

That sense of renegade spirit should be palpable in the ICA retrospective. For the show, Blake has been thinking a lot about “games and game design and play,” finding more exciting developments in these fields beyond the confines of the art industry. Queer game designers in particular, Blake said, are “thinking about issues of social presentation, about how you get people to interact in a way that is meaningful.” A theme likely to emerge at the ICA is “a history of toys and puppets and surrogate beings,” Blake said. “I think there’s something in there about being played with, or putting myself at the disposal of other people.”

An untitled drawing from 2015 by Blake.
An untitled drawing from 2015 by Blake.
©NAYLAND BLAKE/COURTESY MATTHEW MARKS GALLERY

One such surrogate is the irresistible Gnomen, a furry character embodied by Blake during the New Museum’s 2017–18 “Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon” exhibition. A debonair, bipedal bear-bison cross who smokes a pipe, Gnomen is, the artist has written, “a character who has adventures that Nayland can’t. They undergo transformations and troubles and at the same time they embody my own sense of hybridity and mutability.” At the New Museum, Gnomen gave out buttons that visitors could tell secrets to and then pin to their fur. There was also hugging and picture-taking.

Other surrogate beings include Heavenly Bunny Suit (1994), a shimmering gold bodysuit that floats like a supernatural being on a metal armature, and Homunculus (1992), a four-foot-tall suit of black leather and rubber held together by ribbon. Blake’s work proposes that identities can be slipped on and off—constructed from within even as forces attempt to impose them from outside—a formulation at once exhilarating and frightening.

The earliest of Blake’s full-body costumes date to the early 1990s, when they were living in San Francisco. They moved there in 1984, after attending college at Bard in Upstate New York and graduate school at CalArts in Valencia, California. The Bay Area, Blake felt, allowed for a less careerist, more relaxed approach to artistic development. “I say this to my students all the time,” Blake said. “Be in a place where you don’t have to worry about what it is you’re making so that you can figure out what you want to make.”  They became deeply involved in the close-knit arts community there, which had long been welcoming to independent spirits and was largely beyond the commercial sway of New York.

Blake worked as a curator at the pioneering alternative space New Langton Arts and showed work at the closely watched Kiki gallery, where many queer-identified artists were exhibiting. They relished connecting people. The artist “was a kind of wunderkind,” said Lawrence Rinder, who was then a curator at what is now the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, where he is director. “To be so young and still have that respect and stature in the community is kind of unusual,” he said, adding that Blake was “energetic and charismatic and made people excited to be involved in the arts.”

In 1990, the artist connected with performer Philip Horvitz, who would become their partner until 2002. (It’s Horvitz’s weight in the Starting Over costume.) Blake also started to develop a following outside the Bay Area, and appeared in the 1991 Whitney Biennial. “At the time, Nayland was the contemporary artist in San Francisco,” said sculptor Vincent Fecteau, Blake’s studio assistant for the first half of the decade, remembering how, early in his career, “Nayland was incredibly supportive—incredibly supportive—in sending people to my studio.”

One of Blake’s works from this period is a white clock titled Every 12 Minutes (1991) whose face is segmented into 12-minute intervals by five printed lines that say “one aids death.” At the clock’s center in large red capitals is the phrase “stop it.” Contemporaneous pieces include Water/Wine/Vinegar/Piss (1987), which presents these disparate substances in clear bottles, and March (1987), in which apple cores sit like abject human specimens in canisters of vodka. At the time, Blake has said, their work was a response to how they felt in their body: “sometimes vulnerable, sometimes permeable . . . visible and invisible.”

In the mid-’90s Rinder proposed that he and Blake curate a show together that would feature artists from Kiki, “who were creating work that had a kind of caustic ebullience,” he said, but Blake demurred, not wanting simply to transplant that rich scene into a museum context. Instead, Blake proposed they do something else together: a multigenerational exegesis on queer aesthetics at the museum, which became “In a Different Light,” a 1995 show that remains foundational to that field.

That same year, Bay Area artist Jerome Caja, a polymath known for wry paintings and gripping performances, died of AIDS. Recalling that loss and the mood of that time generally, Blake said, “A lot of the work is jokes that are pitched at a very small community, and one of the losses of AIDS . . . is, yes, you lose the people who are telling the jokes, but you also lose the community that the jokes are being told to.” With the disappearance of that audience, Blake continued, “there are certain valences to that work that really are not going to be picked up.”

Nayland Blake's Cuddle Buddy, 2015, produced with the fashion duo Costello Tagliapietra.
Nayland Blake, Cuddle Buddy, 2015, produced with the fashion duo Costello Tagliapietra.
©NAYLAND BLAKE/COURTESY MATTHEW MARKS GALLERY

Around the time of “In a Different Light,” Blake had decided that they had effectively done what they had wanted to do in San Francisco—there had been a show at the city’s Museum of Modern Art and a major commission for the public library. They were curating regularly outside the Bay Area, and they were eager for change. It was time to take on New York.

“In New York, if you put the same show up two times in a row, people are going to call you on your shit,” Blake told me. In contrast, San Francisco had a more laid-back, accepting vibe. “Whatever you wanted to do, that’s great,” the artist recalled. “The flip side of that is that whatever you did, didn’t really matter much.” In 1996 Blake and Horvitz decamped for New York, where, a few years before, Blake had begun showing with an upstart named Matthew Marks, one of the first art dealers to settle in the garages of far West Chelsea.

By the point Blake arrived in New York, the heat that had attached to them had cooled. “I think in a weird way I benefited from people not paying attention to me for a long time,” Blake said. “I got a lot of attention early on and then it really fell off, and that was actually helpful.” They began teaching at Bard in 1997, and five years later started an M.F.A. program in partnership with the International Center of Photography.

“Something Anything,” a show that Blake organized at Marks in 2002, included comic-strip artists, folk artists, and a variety of others, as well as their piece Ruins of a Sensibility (2002), which grew out of the artist’s activities at Bard, where in addition to teaching, they DJed the annual graduation party. Blake’s fellow teacher Tillman recalled, “Nayland had an extraordinary record collection. I don’t know how many records.” Blake felt that they were running out of room to store it, so Tillman suggested turning it into art. The records became Ruins of a Sensibility, a highly personal installation with bins of Blake’s vinyl and, hanging on a wall above, the father-son Jackson Pollockesque drip painting from the artist’s youth. Visitors could pick out records and play them on a stereo set up in the gallery—a generous, melancholy gesture in the spirit of the potlatch. When the piece appeared in a 2003 retrospective at the Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York, its curator, Ian Berry, told me, “It taught us so much, as a museum, about how a sculpture can be welcoming to a huge group of strangers. How many of us would say, Here is my life, remake it, reorder it?” (In July, works by Blake will be on view in a show at the Tang called “Beauty and Bite.”)

In 2005 Horvitz died of heart failure, at 44. Blake, grieving, began a new project, making a drawing every day for a month. On New Year’s Day in 2015, he took up that initiative again, and has continued ever since. “I started drawing every day because it was really hard for me to get into the studio,” they said, explaining that they’d begun to feel like they worked only when they had a deadline for a show. “I didn’t even feel like an artist anymore!” Blake went on. “I started to do stuff in a daily way to be like, OK, at least during this amount of time I know that I’m an artist,” adding a caveat: “The trick with that is that I didn’t say they had to be good drawings.”

Nonetheless, a show of recent drawings at Marks, in 2017, was revelatory, the pieces ranging from the absurd to the laugh-out-loud funny: Gnomen sleeping on the floor with a leash attached to their collar; two cartoon hearts roasting over an open fire; a self-portrait of the artist in a dress with a giant bow, crouching slyly behind a kind of giant fecal tower. They evince a uniquely freewheeling artistic mind, one that had been churning vigorously.

The 2017 show also featured a lone sculpture—a tall construction of wood pieces, plastic netting, and pink and red ribbon. It’s a scrappy, precarious thing, but its cast-off materials ooze pathos in the hands of Blake, who sees such work as “intimate and conversational.” In a related endeavor, Blake picked up items from the street and drew on them before returning them to the spot where they were found, with the printed message “a gift for you from the department of transformation.” The idea, the artist said, was to make “a piece for the next person who came along.”

The streets and the people who selflessly enliven them have been on Blake’s mind lately, and they mentioned people like the ’80s pop icon Angelyne in Los Angeles, who plastered her blonde visage on billboards all around her city, and Ms. Colombia, the radiantly attired LGBTQ+ legend who delighted New Yorkers until passing away last year. “The idea of somebody who is just there as a presence, it’s so comforting to me,” Blake said. In their own Brooklyn neighborhood, and at art events and kink events around town, Blake has become one of those presences himself—an unmissable figure with their luscious beard and sartorial flair.

When not out and about last year, Blake devoted many hours to the videogame Stardew Valley, a farming simulation set in a rural village. “The thing I like about it is, you can be aggressive about maximizing your productivity, but if you didn’t, it wouldn’t be like you were doing it wrong,” Blake said, while also expressing appreciation for “any game that lets you be femme or female and still have a beard.”

It sounded like the ICA exhibition would be similarly permissive and energizing. Blake said they wanted it to be the kind of place “where someone can come in and look at it and think, ‘I can do this. I can be on these walls. I can occupy this space.’ ” They added, with characteristic impishness, “It would also be really helpful if it was a super-hot party where people got to have fun.”

A version of this story originally appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of ARTnews on page 80 under the title “Serious Play.”

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