The title of Nayland Blake’s solo exhibition, ‘What Wont Wreng’, made me do a double-take. I read it initially as it could be read, not as it’s spelled. The same happened with Blake’s name, laid out in vinyl on a gallery wall as ‘Nakand Blayle’, with two long, looping lines drawn on the wall to graphically indicate where one letter has been switched with another. Blake’s play with words hints at a slippery, semiotic slope; if, as Ferdinand de Saussure claimed, language is a closed system in which ‘everything depends on relations’, one stray ‘a’ and the whole thing is fucked, rug pulled out. Along those lines, ‘What Wont Wreng’ posed identity as intrinsically garbled, the exhibition becoming an open-ended articulation of sexual and national identity. It juxtaposed found and fabricated source material – from stuffed animals and plastic toys to vintage gelatin prints and appropriated art works.
In a nice bit of sexual self-mythologizing, Blake confronted visitors to Matthew Marks Gallery as an imposing Leather Daddy. Wearing sunglasses, a leather harness and a black cap, the artist’s image was printed on vinyl and stretched across the front and back of a tidy, two-metre-high modular shelf. Situated in front of the gallery entrance, it was labelled at the top by the name of a fictional leather bar, The Spectre NYC. In tandem with two jars of formless Crisco shortening floating grotesquely in two glass jars atop the shelf, Eleventh (all works 2013) had a suggestively dirty, if muted, sexual energy. It combined the formalism of Tom Burr with the explicitness of Bjarne Melgaard. Placing both aesthetics of gay culture in productive tension, it shared with the other works a predilection for tasteful abjection; there’s just a whiff of Georges Bataille’s Solar Anus (1927), kept carefully in check.
Equally restrained, if suggestive, was Buddy, Buddy, Buddy, which looked something like a walk-in IKEA wardrobe made entirely of glass and chipboard. A double-sided mirror down the centre of the structure orientated two reflective surfaces towards the viewer. On one hung a preposterous quantity of plastic toys – an Ewok figure, gnomes, cartoon bears, among many others – all strung together by their necks and weighed down like a perverse garland. On the other side, an antique-looking stool propped up a teddy bear with a plastic bag pulled crudely over its head. It was about eye level with a small circular hole cut into the wall just large enough to accommodate a dick. Reticent of a buddy booth, Blake’s cleanly cut gloryhole was positioned right next to the sad little thing’s mouth. Two re-photographed found gelatin prints completed the picture. Hanging from a long pole straddling the top of the structure, they could have alluded to both urban street scenes and countryside cruising – the latter image, of a photographer whose shadow cuts a sharp silhouette against a group of trees, felt particularly voyeuristic.
Speaking of which, the toilet at Matthew Marks made a surprise appearance in Untitled. The gallery’s corner bathroom door had been removed and, in its place, long sheets of transparent orange vinyl transformed this ramshackle water closet into a really festive place to piss and shit, if one gets off on being watched (and if a black chain didn’t dissuade actual usage). A large piece of vinyl in the shape of a door hugged the adjacent wall, as if it were always open, though it looked ominously more like a tomb lid than anything else.
Elsewhere, Robert Indiana’s too cute 1964 Christmas card design and oft-photographed LOVE sculpture was drained of any red for Spirit of 69. Turned a caustic and cold black, miniature ‘LOVE’s were stacked like an oversized, goth charm bracelet on a suspended wood table dangling from the back wall. Draped in chains, it was like a readymade strangled and piled high with crap: a little lantern, a lot of love – hanging off a side bar like dead little Indiana earrings.
This was some dark shit, an America so wrong that everything seems so right, as evidenced by Heritage.com’s bucolic image of old people golfing, repeated three times side by side and stretching three-and-a-half metres down one wall. Hanging from a disguised shelving unit, little spindles of brackets inched up the wall behind it, making apparent how the image was both modular and manufactured – a false construct of happy times, if ever there was one.
Perhaps Oh drove the point home: it resembled an American flag made of wood, seemingly blown to pieces, with nothing left but little stars lost on a spindly pole. A product of his time, Blake’s vision of America is a dark one, transgressed with sex and a hint of the violent.