The works selected for “Behavior,” a large exhibition by Nayland Blake at this alternative space in SoHo, are relatively modest—found objects strung together in loose clusters, items of altered furniture, toys, Fluxus-like multiples—but they pack a punch. Take a tidy lamp, called Headlight (1991): its white shade is printed with two tiny Red Cross symbols that instantly convert the blank expanse into a face. Two paper flaps could be hair, or limp bunny ears, or some form of nurse’s cap—none of the associations can be pinned down, exactly, yet they gather into something a little ominous, a little humorous. The mechanism of such transformations can be wonderfully simple: merely a plastic fastener, for example, inexplicably yoking together a half-dozen bottles of Brer Rabbit Molasses (Molasses Six Pack, 1999). Or it can be more elaborate, as in the addition of restraints and other sadomasochistic appurtenances to a classic 1927 Marcel Breuer leather-and-aluminum chair (Restraint Chair, 1989). The reappointed chair looks as though it could admirably serve its retrofitted purpose, down to the mirror strategically placed at fellatio level, all the while delivering a lesson about the libidinal undercurrents of modernist design.
Curator Maura Reilly has assembled 50 objects from 30 years in this first such career-long survey of the prolific artist. Blake has worked in a broad range of materials and formats; all the objects here can stand alone, though some refer to projects elsewhere. Blake constantly relays imagery from one work to another, and from one period to the next. Molasses, for example, alludes to a human-scale gingerbread house that the artist has re-created several times (though not at Location One) and, in turn, to another work on view, Jim (1991), a creepy rabbit marionette suspended over the roof of a miniature log cabin, referring to a bizarre racist toy the artist once saw. In fact, Blake’s work begs for a full-dress retrospective integrating objects, performances and film; the more you see, the more you are able to form a cohesive picture of bits and pieces glimpsed over years. Blake blurs categories and mixes metaphors; though his work can look somewhat constrained when limited to doses, it is almost wildly generous in its totality.
The artist has long addressed issues of race and sexuality; he himself is biracial but light-skinned and a bearded, burly, pipe-smoking “bear,” a subcategory of queer. Such identities have informed his deliberately multivalent project as much as have antecedents as disparate as Joseph Cornell and the Marquis de Sade. Thus the frequent appearance of the hermeneutically nimble rabbit, a favorite trope. The gold nylon Heavenly Bunny Suit (1994) emanates a weird mixture of fun and discomfort, while the stuffed bunnies are downright sinister: a poufy yellow one shedding yellow pompons, as if from some disease (One Down, 1994); another stashed in a suspended nylon stocking, as if a relic of some murder scene (Bunnyhole 1, 1997). Similarly polymorphous is Homunculus (1991), a dwarf-sized rubber and latex man, all black, touched up decorously with ribbon, with a face molded from Blake’s own. Propped up on a post, he sports flaccid pouches where a Renaissance prince might wear a robust codpiece. What a strange, laughable mix is this little man, at once endearing and creepy!
Blake has been an AIDS activist, and the subject of illness often surfaces in his art—most weirdly, here, in Magic (1990-91), a shrinelike, gothic assemblage that has as its main element a bizarre puppet created in the 1960s by Wayland Flowers, a flamboyant puppeteer and TV personality. Flowers died of AIDS in 1988; Blake acquired one of his “Madame” puppets at an auction and placed her in Magic, with its tumbling mass of dried flowers. On the other end of affect, Blake can fashion cool, highly formal works, as in a recent series of brightly colored Plexiglas and mirror panels with surfaces brushed here and there to create scratchy patches. As much as Magic, they refuse to behave, imperfect as monochromes and as objects of design. “Behavior” includes three evenings of readings and performances by Blake and literary friends, the final one to take place Feb. 9.