BY Shiv Kotecha in Features | 30 DEC 19
Featured in
Issue 208

Operations of Pleasure: The World of Nayland Blake

As Blake’s most comprehensive retrospective to date closes at the ICA, Los Angeles, Shiv Kotecha examines the artist’s three-decade practice, which revels in the infinite variations of identity and pleasure

BY Shiv Kotecha in Features | 30 DEC 19

Nayland Blake, 3.8.15 (detail), 2015, coloured pencil on paper, 31 × 23 cm. Courtesy: © Nayland Blake and Matthew Marks Gallery; photograph: Alan Wiener

This past summer, I spent a muggy morning with the artist Nayland Blake at their central Brooklyn apartment, where they’ve lived for the past 17 years. On their walls hung a few drawings by Tom of Finland, a graphic painting by Margaret Kilgallen, columns of collectible baseball caps and several hooks for leather harnesses. Piles of books were stacked at eye level, while a collection of meerschaum and chillum pipes lay in a bowl on the mantel. Hidden below the artist’s great beard, a bubblegum-pink shirt advertised a pigunicorn, with a smiley face for its snout. I flipped through several binders of Blake’s drawings, which, since 2015, have become a daily routine. Some are minimal sketches of orifices with protest signs sticking out of them: ‘NO WRONG HOLE,’ reads one. Some depict decorative scenes and fluffy animals; others celebrate what sex and gender might feel like. ‘Cunt Envy Is Real!’ reads the caption for one early drawing; ‘A Guy I Like to Fuck’ reads another, in which the artist is portrayed naked, smoking a pipe and strapped to a corner. As Blake’s retrospective, ‘No Wrong Holes’, was opening at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, they spoke to me about the freedom granted by writing and drawing which, in their words, ‘can transform and transmute bodies’ and ‘means I get to have a cunt, too!’

Nayland Blake, Restraint Chair, 1989, Breuer chromed metal, leather, chains, steel cable and mirror, 84 × 61 × 62 cm. Courtesy: © Nayland Blake, Grey Art Gallery, New York University, and Matthew Marks Gallery; photograph: Nicholas Papananias

Blake’s remarkable sculptures, videos, performances, drawings and writing revel in the infinite modes of communal pleasure and in the attendant transmutations of gender that they allow. Furry costumes, mangled puppets, marionettes, leather restraints and other props populate the artist’s work, often taking the form of animals or animal-hybrids. For Blake, who is nonbinary and pansexual, the child of a white mother and a black father, the practices initiated by queer subcultural communities – such as kinky play and furry fandom – establish the foundations of an art that traverses possible constructions and reconstructions of identity, both within and without the category of ‘human’. In relishing the forms a body might want to take – from a femme Bugs Bunny to the racially ambiguous Br’er Rabbit and a bloodless homunculus – Blake draws our attention to the ways in which commodities can be wrenched from the morass of our cultural debris only to become, as the novelist Kathy Acker wrote in Low: Good and Evil in the Work of Nayland Blake (1990), ‘commodities unrelated to meaning. Commodities that, at best, pretend to mean.’

Acker reads Blake’s works as if they were detached from normative modes of making meaning and, instead, suspended in a nether, libidinous region ‘between hysteria and restraint’. The operations of pleasure, both Acker and Blake recognize, do not always express themselves in terms we already know: a new vocabulary may need to be invented. Take Blake’s early sculpture Restraint Chair (1989), for instance. To a sleek Breuer chair – the classic coil with two taut pieces of black leather for one’s back and buttocks – Blake attaches extra leather restraints, presumably to hold the sitter’s arms and legs. Rope hangs below the base of the chair for another user or play partner. Blake conflates Bauhaus minimalism with restraint play, turning sleek modernist design into an erogenous zone of sexual enactment. The work articulates their private preferences concerning sexual behaviour while also functioning within a porous public space – that of the gallery – as a realization of possibilities originally created within queer spaces. As Blake writes in a 1995 essay about Tom of Finland’s drawings of well-hung, half-naked men, these works provide ‘the props for the viewer to hang a fantasy on rather than a specific person for the viewer to be aroused by’.

Nayland Blake, Satanic Ritualized Abuse, 1994, two stuffed bunnies, wood, leather, rope, plastic knife, birthday candles and plastic bell, 31 × 31 × 24 cm. Courtesy: © Nayland Blake and Matthew Marks Gallery; photograph: Elon Schoenholz

Born in 1960 in New York, Blake attended Bard College before moving west, in 1982, to attend California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) in Los Angeles, where they received their MFA. After graduating in 1984, they moved to San Francisco, a city that promised a bounty of queer-centric communities. They showed at, and eventually curated exhibitions and worked as the programme coordinator for, New Langton Arts in the city’s SoMa district – then a sparsely populated but cruisey area where small galleries, like New Langton Arts, were neighbours with various kinky bars and clubs. Blake recalls seeing men ‘right outside the gallery window’ visiting The EndUp, a nearby leather bar, ‘where they’d pop the trunks of their cars and change out of business attire into leather gear’, harnessed or ball-gagged, ready to explore the night. Blake joined the more inclusive bear scene, which had broken off from the militant – and predominantly white – leather community to make room for the scruffier, hairier, bigger bodies that didn’t fit in. ‘I love those cultural moments’, the artist told me, ‘where a group of people […] come to a definition of themselves and the things that they like doing.’ According to Blake, San Francisco was New York’s biggest blind spot in the early 1990s: the former’s art, literature and music scenes were, like the gay bars and clubs, scrappier and more hybridized, without the visible definitions demanded by their respective markets. While the artist’s peers at CalArts stayed in Los Angeles or rushed to the east coast to hustle and sell work – or get lost in the process – Blake chose a place where they could fuck as well as ‘fuck up for a little while’, as they told me, ‘without too much scrutiny’.

Blake moved fluidly between these aesthetic scenes and the emergent leather, bear and BDSM communities; the artist’s sexual and social experiments became extensions of the ways they worked in the studio. The ritualistic forms of permission enacted within kinky bars – consent, for example, or revealing your HIV status – became conduits by which Blake could, in early performance and video works, explore the rhetoric of play that these communities engaged with in offering a safe place to express their fears and anxieties in the wake of the HIV/AIDS crisis. Negative Bunny (1994), for instance, is a 30-minute video in which the artist ventriloquizes a plush red rabbit that manically repeats its negative HIV status, cajoling the viewer’s sexual affections: ‘’Cus yea, why not, come on. I was just tested a little while ago, two or three hours ago, and they said I was negative, and I’ve got a note somewhere – I’ve got it written down that I’m negative – and I really, really feel like you should really face up to this, and let me, and why not? What the hell, it’ll be fun, because like I told you, I’m really good at it, and I’m negative, and I’m really negative. I’m really, really, really negative.’ Blake’s caricature, perverse and tragicomic, calls attention to the modes of refusal possible within a sexual encounter as well as to the false hegemonies that delimit the pleasure that can be had by non-white or not-muscular bodies, even within the space of queer sex and inclusion. The sculpture Hole Variations (1996) provides an antidote. It is comprised of a wooden slab set atop two emptied Hershey’s chocolate syrup tins. Several holes are drilled through the wood and five black and brown abstract cloth figures, with one or two buttons for eyes, are squeezed through the holes and tucked in different positions – none of which is ‘wrong’.

Nayland Blake, Gorge, 1998, film still. Courtesy: © Nayland Blake and Matthew Marks Gallery

This dynamic is, perhaps, most apparent in Gorge (1998) – an hour-long video and, throughout the 1990s, a durational performance staged in various galleries – in which Blake, who is biracial but white-presenting, sits shirtless on a chair and omnivorously accepts whatever is given to him by a ‘feeder’, who is, in this case, a recognizably black man. (The performance is a visual play on Édouard Manet’s Olympia, 1863, in which a nude white woman reclines while a black servant hovers by her side, proffering a bouquet of flowers.) To each of the feeder’s offerings in Gorge, Blake acquiesces: slices of pizza, tummy rubs, a sandwich popped into their mouth, a towel wiped across their beard, glasses of wine and milk. These actions incorporate the subcultural behaviours of ‘gaining and encouraging’ – a fetish community to which Blake and their fellow performer belonged. The video is tense, as the question of who’s on top – who has the power in the situation – keeps flipping back and forth. By presenting various modes of interaction, including some that carry potential risk, Blake’s performance gives both participants the chance to discover the limits of their engagement with one another, and raises questions about how both race and consent are enacted.

In the more recent video Stab (2013), Blake depicts the ambient ways in which queer friendships can enable both physical and psychological healing. Here, the camera follows the hands of the artist Liz Collins (whose practice at the time involved ‘knitting interventions’) as she repairs a sock monkey, an important memento of Blake’s relationship with their former partner, Philip Horvitz, which had been mauled by Blake’s dog. Offscreen, Blake talks to Collins and two lesbian friends about pets, queer coupledom and their shared interest in cult films. (They laugh about one movie in which a twink is, like the puppet, ‘fed to the dogs’.) It’s a sweet scene of repair, of re-memberance, which reveals how queer relations, like the scenes of sexual play in Blake’s other works, are enabled by expressions of empathy and the mutual acknowledgement of trust.

Nayland Blake, Stab, 2013, video still. Courtesy: © Nayland Blake and Matthew Marks Gallery

For Crossing Object (inside Gnomen) (2017–18), performed as part of the exhibition ‘Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon’ at the New Museum in New York, Blake wore an animal-hybrid costume – part bear, part bison – of unfixed gender, and stood in the museum’s elevator. There, the artist held out a tray of badges for visitors to whisper secrets into before pinning them to the creature’s fur. Then, once gallery-goers had given their permission, Blake would hug them. This is a work that speaks to its audience about sex and protection in a language all lovers would like to hear.

As with these video and performance works, Blake’s sculptures restage social and sexual situations familiar to the kink and BDSM communities, but often with their terms – and accoutrements – appearing only in scrambled quotation. In Dust (1987–ongoing), for instance, Blake rearranged the letters of the name of an iconic San Francisco leather bar, The Stud, so that it read ‘Dust’ and hung it, as a flag, at a gallery just three blocks from the bar. By offering a potential slippage – whereby the audience might see the artwork before encountering its real-world referent – Dust enables its viewers to engage with the world of the other without imposing a prescriptive reading. ‘The delayed reaction’, Blake told me, ‘is a thing that art can do really well, but we normally don’t let happen.’ A similar effect occurs in Flahp (1990), a neon sculpture that spells out the titular portmanteau in lowercase letters, conflating a sexual position (a ‘flip’) with a possible furry accoutrement (a ‘flap’) and the quick, breathy utterance that might accompany penetration or flatulent release (‘ah’). By opening up the word, Blake dissociates it from its purpose as a code or identifying marker and renders it – like a body – a composite of feelings, movements and daily functions. The slippage leads to something new.

Nayland Blake, Crossing Object (inside Gnomen), 2017–18, installation view, New Museum, New York. Courtesy: © Nayland Blake and Matthew Marks Gallery; photograph: Scott Rudd

Blake told me that their interests have returned lately to the comics and cartoons they grew up with – not only as images, but as stand-ins for their cultural and racial heritages. They described becoming transfixed by the figure of the bunny and its various connotations within popular culture: specifically Uncle Remus’s Br’er Rabbit, a trickster character whose songs resemble racist minstrel songs and whose ‘tricks’ are rooted in folkloric tales from western Africa. Blake’s practice indulges in derivation and in the minute shifts of meaning that any one image can try on or dispose of. Upsetting received images of wholesomeness (the icons of our youth) by relocating them within the contexts of BDSM and kink, as well as within a history of racial caricature, Blake’s works prompt viewers to consider how desire is as tied to childhood experiences and to the operations of gender across racial divides as it is to the erotically charged present. The artist’s daily drawing practice has the gleeful abandon of a fan-fiction writer who – rather than contribute to the culture industry’s churning-out of character-themed commodities – enthusiastically creates artworks that can be shared with other fans and artists at themed conventions and on online forums.

Nayland Blake, Dust, 2012, print on polyester, 1.3 × 1.9 m. Courtesy: © Nayland Blake and Matthew Marks Gallery; photograph: Elon Schoenholz

Blake also teaches workshops within the kink community: one on cigar and pipe play, one on using impact and one titled ‘The Artist’s Way to Designing Scenes’, which shows students how to set up an S&M scenario to facilitate both pleasure and safety. When I confessed that I was keen to engage in the kink and leather scenes, but had been hesitant due to attendant anxieties (my fursona being more sheep than bunny), Blake responded reassuringly: ‘You don’t have to overextend yourself, honey.’ They then gave me a whole set of protocols and resources that might help me figure out my own desires in arenas outside of the bar or club; I could go to a ‘munch’, for instance – a casual daytime meet-up of kinky fellows, where I could explore my interests without the imperative to play. Blake’s penchant for interactivity is intrinsic to their exploration of understanding how a body feels in different circumstances – in costume or furs, tied up or strapped down with restraints that serve only to liberate our minds. ‘It’s more than okay,’ Blake assured me, ‘to make up your own fun.’

‘No Wrong Holes: Thirty Years of Nayland Blake’ continues at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, USA, until 26 January 2020.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 208 with the headline ‘Bear Hug’.

Shiv Kotecha is a contributing editor of frieze. He is the author of The Switch (Wonder, 2018) and  EXTRIGUE (Make Now, 2015), and his criticism appears in 4Columns, Aperture, art-agenda, MUBI’s Notebook and BOMB.