Nayland Blake’s Participatory Art

  • by Chris Sosa, BAR Contributor
  • Tuesday October 30, 2012
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Artist Nayland Blake. (Photo: Courtesy the artist)
Artist Nayland Blake. (Photo: Courtesy the artist)

Wikipedia describes the unusual mixed-media oeuvre of gay artist Nayland Blake thusly: "Disturbing, provocative, elusive, tormented, sinister, hysterical, brutal, and tender." There are few individuals who could lay claim to such an entry, but Blake earned it, in part, by creating combos of installation, costume, performance and collage, and hitching them to loaded personal subject matter.

A perusal of the slide show on his website is a trip of startling sights inflected with humor: a firing squad constituted of yellow (model) bunnies, or a single rabbit towing a wooden coffin on a cart (bunnies symbolize gay sexuality, fluid gender, and were inspired, he says, by Bugs Bunny in drag); a menacing glass-and-chrome table whose perimeter is hung with meat cleavers right out of horror town; household items in uncanny groupings; gnomes; and the occasional cartoon-like one that reads: "We're #1, not you." His work addresses racial identity - his father is black, his mother white - and themes of dominance and submission in particular and sexuality in general, but he may be best-known for tap dancing in a 150 lb. bunny suit which he hasn't permanently retired. "Oh, it's still there," Blake admitted while on a break from installing FREE!LOVE!TOOL!BOX!, his new interactive exhibition at the Yerba Buena Center gallery. I spied crimson and hot pink fright-wigs on the floor, and a pair of mammoth clown shoes waiting to be filled. For what purpose were those intended, I wondered. "Are you volunteering?" he gently inquired.

Engaging and charismatic, Blake is a bearish, friendly man who spent the 1980s in the Bay Area as a performance artist, AIDS activist and strong advocate for younger artists before returning to his native New York in 1996. He grew up on the Upper West Side during the 1960s in a racially diverse neighborhood, and now lives in Brooklyn.

Acknowledging his tendency to circle back to sex, he says, "The way you do one thing is the way you do everything, so the type of art I make is exactly like the sex I like: thoughtful and surprising and revealing." For the past few years, he has spent a lot of time in the BDSM community, where has found a type of performance art with lessons he believes the art world could benefit from. "In a BDSM scene, the actors and the audience are the same," he notes. "People are enacting things for each other's pleasure. Each person is engaged. No one is sitting there watching. Nobody gets to experience the performance unless they're committed."

As for what's in store for visitors to YBCA, he promises to confound expectations. Representing somewhat of a departure for the artist, this outing is a bare-bones show with operating instructions and a free-form, DIY ethos "that's less about providing a finished product than a platform for people to participate."

There are glory holes for men who prefer not to masturbate on their own; a video booth where you can dress up in costume - a voluminous black tutu hangs on a wall and a supply of white T-shirts are available from handy dispensers, but you can BYO, photograph yourself with a phone camera, and YBCA will post the pictures. In another booth, aspiring DJs can spin recordings from Blake's private. eclectic collection of over 3,000 LPs. Selections include free jazz from the 70s, Yma Sumac, vintage Rolling Stones, Dylan, Sinatra, Disco Party, Village People, spoken word child-rearing records, Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet and Pia Zadora, among others. In another area, shelf space is set aside for people to contribute articles of clothing, like leather hoods or face masks, that Blake will turn into a piece when he returns to reconfigure the work-in-progress exhibit in mid-November.

"I make art to find out who I am," he explains. "The fear of improvising, of not knowing if you're going to end up with a piece or a show or whether it's all going to be crap, is the model for confronting fear in the rest of your life. This is the laboratory."

The Toolbox of the exhibition's title refers to the city's first leather bar, located at 4th and Harrison before it was torn down to make way for progress. The establishment was featured prominently in a 1964 Life magazine photo spread, "Homosexuality in America." The bar's patrons are shown in the article's opening pictures, as is Chuck Arnett's mural, which has been recreated by Blake. "It was the first time that any mass-market magazine had ever shown leather men," he recalls. "It was a huge thing. It went all over the world and guys realized there's this physical space where you can gather. Now we can find out about all sorts of arcane sexual practices or obscure artists, but it's always through the filter of the screen," and at the expense of stumbling onto new frontiers. "To me, online culture is based on definition, while art and powerful emotions are based on the tolerance of ambiguity. That ambiguity is the reason I make the things I do."

For Blake, the show pivots on two specific historical moments: the 1960s, before the gay liberation movement formulated itself; and the early 1990s, post-ACT-UP, post-Queer Nation period. What links these moments, he says, is that they were times of exploration and "an effervescent wackiness and reinvention."

"In the early 90s here," he adds, "there was a confluence of the drag communities and a reemergence of gender, kinky sexuality and playfulness at clubs where people created a joyous queerness. Queerness used to be about transforming all of society, not achieving our place within it. Among younger trans people, I see a willingness to disrupt ideas about gender and the standard narratives of what you're supposed to be, what your body represents and how it's connected to something we would call sexuality. I want this show to be a reminder - and a location to foster - that impulse for transformation."

Through Jan. 27 at YBCA. Visitors wanting to DJ can sign up for time slots online:

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