It comes as something of a shock to learn that Nayland Blake--protean, critically celebrated and remarkably self-possessed--is only 31.
But then, the artist who grew up in New York and now lives in San Francisco can trace the roots of his work back 27 years, to childhood visits to the New York World’s Fair in 1964 and dioramas at the Museum of Natural History.
The World’s Fair was “terrifying and magical . . . going through these dark spaces with these moving dioramas around me,” Blake said during his noon lecture Tuesday at Newport Harbor Art Museum, where he is one of the eight artists represented in “Mapping Histories: Third Newport Biennial.”
By high school, he had become an “art nerd,” an “uncool” kid with an interest in filmmaking. At Bard College in Upstate New York he eventually gravitated to the studio art department. But, he said, “if you were really good at Bard, by your senior year you ended up making enormous, emotive abstract paintings. . . . I could never figure out a rationale for making these things.”
Instead, he believed in art that could be made by “generating raw footage” on film from objects that may come “from an antique store or something I read” and editing these materials “in the same way you construct a narrative out of pieces of film.”
Blake said he has long been envious of filmmakers who structure the flow of images in their works and who are able to control the viewer’s attention with bright images meant to be seen in a darkened room. Those museum dioramas he liked so much used much the same technique, he remarked.
During his senior year in college, Blake made sprawling, crowded installations out of disparate materials. One such piece was displayed, aptly enough, in an abandoned theater. But graduate studies in the rigorously theoretical climate of California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) in Valencia were not a fruitful time for Blake. His art was viewed as “worthless, uninteresting and regressive,” he said, and his attempts to fit in with CalArts dogma resulted in two years of “ideological and personal crisis” not to mention “some very bad work.”
Still, he earned his master of fine arts degree, moved to San Francisco and began making installations again. But something about these temporary pieces bugged him: There was nothing to show for months of work once the installation was dismantled. The solution seemed to be to devise an object that “contained a narrative,” he said.
Using such materials as handkerchiefs and human hair (“Totem and Taboo”) or a curious tool with a pitchfork on one end and a mallet on the other (“Kissing Nixon”), Blake began suggesting connections between relics of the past and contemporary human interaction. The objects in his work were small, he said, “not the scale we usually associate with sculpture.” Another piece, “H.U.S.,” consists of a book of gay pornography pickled in brine in a glass container and mounted on a pedestal encircled by letters spelling out the word successes .
But he recalled something a professor told him in college--that “whenever we have something that is a success, it’s important to throw it away and work in the opposite direction. If you continuously solve a problem in the same way, that new idea becomes a kind of crutch. You see it all the time in the work of artists afraid to let go of their standard solution.”
So he began to get away from a reliance on texts in the work, he said, in favor of documenting an activity that must be recreated in the mind. He set out to create “a collision between what you think of mentally and what you’re actually confronted with physically.”
In “After Veronica,” a row of handkerchiefs are stained with such “evocative” fluids as wax, semen, blood, kerosene, ink and saliva. (St. Veronica is said to have used her handkerchief to wipe Christ’s bleeding face.) Another Blake piece contains apple cores preserved in vodka--each one neatly labeled for each day of the month of March; still another work consists bowl of saffron that has been used to tint the wooden frame of a child’s empty blackboard.
Once again, though, Blake shifted his focus, turning away from his preoccupation with organic substances to make a group of cold, clinical-looking steel pieces. They are “about bondage, about organizing people into positions,” he said. Although much of his work is directly related to specifically gay themes, Blake said he has not allowed gay political issues “to become the crutch on which work depends. I’m not interested in making illustrations for political theories.” On the contrary, he said, only in making the work did he come to define his beliefs.
Despite his earlier decision against the use of texts, Blake returned to making pieces that consist entirely of words silk-screened on chalkboards--a quote from Leonardo da Vinci, a short story by Edgar Allan Poe, a description of the way hallucinogens are produced.
“These bits of texts were emblematic,” he said. “They are like the fragments of things I find in antique stores.” By putting the quotes on chalkboards, he made them physical: “You could tote them around.”
Blake also borrows what he calls “low culture” texts, like titles of pop songs. He inscribed “It’s Kiss or Kill” (after a song by the Los Angeles punk band X) in suitably classic lettering under an archway at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and discovered that “tons of people had no idea (the message) hadn’t been there all the time.”
Poking around thrift shops so much for the furnishings of his art, he began thinking about “the pure thrill of shopping.” Much art critical of commodity-worship in our society struck him as off the mark: “It’s always about these weird things (like fancy cars), not really about things in our lives.”
So he made a piece in which used paperback books--the kind you find at garage sales and thrift shops, like “The Exorcist” and “The Love Machine"--are grouped in immaculate plexiglass containers and hung on the wall. Referring to the clusters of colorful book spines, Blake joked, “I finally made some stripe paintings.”
Blake’s latest pieces are made of artificial ivy and flowers and real twigs shaped into letters. “The beautiful things are artificial,” he said. “The natural parts--the twigs--are encoded with language.” But he is still figuring out where these works are going, he said, and finds it difficult to say much about them.
Moving into the gallery to talk about his Newport Harbor installation, “The Philosopher’s Suite"--which consists of various elements, most notably a stage set on a platform and several distressed-looking puppets and marionettes attached to the gallery walls--Blake said the viewer is given “everything you need to complete the action in your mind.” Based on “Philosophy in the Boudoir” by the Marquis de Sade, the notorious 18th-Century libertine, the installation “is about our desire to see this text happen.”
Blake noted that the novel has an independent life as a scandalous document, beyond what De Sade actually wrote. In fact, he said, the book deals not only with sex practices but also with such hot 18th-Century topics as whether God exists and what the relationship between man and the state should be. Nevertheless, many people have condemned it without having read it.
“I’m not here to pass a moral judgment on the Marquis de Sade,” Blake said. “The greatest sin we can commit today is ignorance. Our society is encouraging us to let Them figure it out for us, whether They are on the Left or the Right. Fewer people are voting. . . . People feel they don’t have a say. The most important thing we can do as people is to find out what we think.”
Ultimately, the piece is about “who is in control, who is arranging whom,” Blake said. “The thing in my work that I really do believe is that we all have the equipment to make culture happen. . . . Either you make culture or you consume culture. And the preference (in this society) is to consume.”
And what does he say to those who find his work hard to understand? “I think art is like opening a book,” Blake said. “I don’t automatically expect to know what’s in it before I read it. Often, when I read it, there are many things I don’t get. That’s the way knowledge functions in our mind. . . . I made a decision to make works that function in a dense way, that expand over time.”