Nayland Blake subverts familiar cultural narratives, often with humor
In his seventh exhibition at Matthew Marks Gallery, Nayland Blake steals cultural narratives and applies a queer-black eye upon things associated with the straight gal or guy.
Upon walking into Blake’s exhibition “Reel Around,” you are immediately confronted with a child-sized bunny suit carefully sewn together, made of low brow souvenir concert and pro wrestling T-shirts. One scrap contains a bawdy limerick parody celebrating base desires for sex and alcohol.
The child size initially instills a desire to gush and brings to mind kids with saccharin sweet pajamas imposed upon them by their doting parents. But the sliced-up cultural remnants subvert the that response and lends this bunny a bit of attitude. Blake’s work plays with subtle contradictions by skewing cultural narratives. This is apparent in both his work and his influences which range from authors such as Kathy Acker and Djuna Barnes to performers such as Richard Foreman, Sun Ra, Jack Smith, The Wooster Group, and pro wrestling.
The main gallery is dominated by “The Big One” a huge white bunny suit. A recurring symbol in Blake’s art which serves as a stand in for aspects of the artist’s identity––he’s gay and the child of biracial parents––the bunny persona connotes ideas of gay promiscuity (as in, he fucks like a rabbit) and racial denigration (as in, Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby).
The impact of other cultural influences on his work becomes clear when Blake is asked to elaborate on his interest in Kathy Acker: “The thing I love about her work is that her writing is passionately based in reading––in filtering stories through other stories and stamping them with her own convictions. When she encounters another writer she hijacks them into her world unabashedly. I thought this was an empowering way to proceed instead of being afraid of influence or contact with other artists.”
And Blake succeeds in taking cues from other artists to empower his own vision. Whether it is a nod to Jasper Johns through Blake’s use of the flag in “Triple Surrender,” a triptych of all white Confederate flags hung in descending sizes, or to Robert Gober, through the peculiar subversion of normalcy, or even to Bruce Nauman through the use of humor in sculpture and performance, Blake stands smartly among his peers and within the historical legacy which precedes him.
Blake uses his own body to address hyper-masculine intimacy. Blake, a great bear of a man decorated with tattoos and a big bushy beard, has performed various DVD works including a collaboration with artist A.A. Bronson in “Coat,” in which the two men are depicted in separate monitors tenderly slathering black and white cake frosting on each others faces. The second part of “Coat,” installed in the back-room gallery, shows the two artists on one monitor embraced in a kiss. The image of these two burly men in a scatological cake frosting kiss could play either comic or repulsive, but instead it comes across as a celebration.
“Making art is manifesting our individual presence in the world,” Blake said. “Shame is the name we give to the way we have been instructed to regard that presence. I think that to the extent that we can become ‘shameless,’ we can see each other clearly. Most often shame is used as a damping and policing device. Even within supposed minorities, it is a way of squelching difference. I think of my work as a practice in reveling in my own complexities, differences, and indecisions. I’d hope that I could be an aid to other folks doing the same.”
Blake does indeed serve as an aid, and a queer voice that is outside of the stereotypes and safe cultural niches currently occupied by the likes of celibate gay men such as Will and his fag hag Grace and the doting queer eye housekeepers servicing heterosexual white males. It is refreshing to get a real queer eye upon an odd ball world in “Reel Around.”
This artist and show are not to be missed.