Thursday, July 23, 2009

Say Hello to Nayland Blake

Feeder 2 (1998), image via Matthew Marks Gallery

In a society that needs to put labels on people, you seem to live in between worlds. During different periods of your life you have self-identified as black and other times as white.  You're neither gay or straight. Do you think those experiences makes you an insider into more worlds or an outsider to the world at large?

I'm more interested interested in the spaces between worlds and words, the borders, the thresholds.  I'm disappointed when people treat the labels they've adopted as some sort of gospel. To me uncertainty is the most invigorating state, but for most of our society, even those
self declared alternative groups, uncertainty is a thing to be shunned and feared.  Because I'm willing to take that on, I think that I am less at home in more places, but I hope that I can act as a kind of connective agent, making different groups aware of each other and their similarities.

Coat (2001), Collaboration with AA Bronson
Image via Elisabeth Kley

Does it ever create an 'identity crisis' in your work?

I think my work succeeds to the extent that it makes people question their preconceived categories.  Since that's not the usual modus operandi for much art work, especially identity-based work, some people may interpret that as a crisis of identity.  I don't. I make the work to find out what I think or feel about a particular thing, not to express some notion about identity.

Joe Dallesandro as Augustin (1994), image via Matthew Marks

You've brought your childhood (bunnies, gingerbread houses, puppets) into your adult life as a way of exploring themes of sex, control and identity. Can you talk about that?

Any piece I make starts out as a kind of hazy idea of a thing I'd like to see, and it's through the making, the wrestling with the material, that I come to some understanding of why I wanted to see it in the first place.  I'm always asking myself “why does this feel right to me?”  The “this” in that sentence may be piece of artwork I'm looking at, a book I'm reading or a sexual activity.  I try to investigate my emotions and responses through making things.  So when I do that, the trail usually leads back to childhood.  There have been times where I've gotten a little tired of that in the work, where I start to suspect that the child-like nature of the imagery has become a gimmick.  That's one of the things I'm grateful to photography for. It's hard to be childish in a photograph.  At least it is for me.

Bunnyhole II (2007) image via James Wagner

I had always assumed your use of rabbits was primarily about fecundity. I read that you are also "... using the rabbit as this metaphor for something that's sort of in-between race. Of
indeterminate race. That came from thinking about Br'er Rabbit and Uncle Wiggily. Those stories are West African folktales that came into this country with slaves. They're like the progenitor of Bugs Bunny. So in thinking of my own racial identity, I kept sort of using this rabbit metaphor."  The rabbits seem to be able to hold many ideas for you. What do they mean to you today?

I kept coming back to them so often over the years because their trails of reference led in so many different directions.  It goes back to what I was saying above.  I get the idea of a certain kind of bunny thing I'd like to see and then having worked on it I start asking why was that image in my head.  These days they seem a little exhausted for me as a subject matter, so there really haven't been so many bunny pieces in the past four years or so.  I'm sure they'll come back at some point, but they haven't for a while.

Daily 1.9.05 (2005), image via artist

If I had to chose a favorite piece of yours, it would probably be Coat (followed closely by Starting Over). Coat was such a great convergence of your dominant themes. Is there a piece or show that you feel especially represents you?

Thanks for saying that.  I've always tried to make the work so that one thing doesn't sum it all up.  I think I'm best represented in the range of the work, the fact that there's representational drawings, and abstract found object sculptures, and text pieces and performances and that it all makes more sense the more you see it in combination. I like it when people investigate the work and see the different currents in it.  My favorite artists are those I see that kind of richness in and it's the thing I aspire to for myself.  It's something that I think has been lost in artists' training which seems to be focused on forcing people to pick one trope and to stick to it endlessly.

Video still from Gorge (1998), image via Matthew Marks Gallery

You were 21 and living in New York when AIDS hit. A year later, you moved out to San Francisco to get your MFA. Did living in those cities during the early 80s have a big impact on your art and politics?

Just two corrections:  I was attending college in upstate New York in '81 and went to grad school in Southern California after that. I didn't make it to San Francisco until 1984.  But yes the AIDS epidemic certainly had a huge impact on all of us.  I remember a gay man in LA trying to talk me out of relocating to San Francisco after school by telling me that “the all have AIDS up there”.  So the fear of the unknown was palpable.  The man who gave me my first job when I did move north was one of the first people I knew directly with AIDS.  I was not connected to the New York response however.  It's hard to say that AIDS “hit” New York in 81.  Truth is, very few people were talking about it then even though there was growing media response. The thing that AIDS did in the artworld, was that it changed people's perception of what “Gay Art” could be.  Up to that point, the only art that was recognizably gay was either beefcake or camp, neither of which were thought of as serious subjects for artists.  It was the rise of both the work of mourning and the work of activism that changed people's perceptions of what gay artists had to say. That happened in many different places worldwide, and it's something that's effects are still being seen today.

Video still from Starting Over (2000) image via artist website

What do you think the biggest misconception people have about you is?

Wow, I kind of don't know how to answer this. Usually people don't tell me so much what they're thinking of me, so it's hard to tell when they're off. I suppose it's that I think I know what I'm doing, that the work is the expression of some preconceived idea that I'm trying to deliver to an audience.  Really I'm just thrashing around in the middle of it.  But that's a misconception that people tend to have about art making in general and less about me. I guess certain critics have assumed that I was cynical at certain times, and that has rankled. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Server (2000), image via Matthew Marks Gallery

You've recently completed a 25 year retrospective.  Do you feel you can breathe a little easier now? Or does it create a sense of urgency to make more work?

Today's blank sheet of paper is just as terrifying as the one I sat in front of twenty years ago. The only difference is that I have a bit more experience with saying to myself: OK, if you commit to being in the midst of this terror, the odds are good that you'll learn something in the process.  I was very happy to see that group of works brought together, because we did it in a way to make people reevaluate what they thought of what I was doing.  It was very nice to see the way things spoke to each other across the years, but that doesn't change things in the studio.  There are no guarantees; we have to face each new thing fresh and with as much honesty as we can muster.   


Nayland Blake is represented by Matthew Marks (New York), Fred (London) and Gallery Paule Anglim (San Francisco). He's popped up a few times recently here in the Northwest. TJ Norris curated him into .meta in Oregon and Volume (Robert Crouch/Ed Patuto) included him in their recent show Scores at Lawrimore Project. Two of his pieces (including Joe Dallesandro as Augustin) are currently on view at The Frye Museum as part of The Puppet Show.


Betsey said...

Nice job, Joey! What a great interview and you totally didn't geek out about your art crush. You are awesome and I am impressed.

Mandy Greer said...

"OK, if you commit to being in the midst of this terror, the odds are good that you'll learn something in the process. "

I love this! I'd like to make poster for me wall. I could quote about 10 more things from this interview! I love the bunny suit, the weight of a loved one has so much resonance with me.
thank you , joey

Anonymous said...

Two things come out from this: Joey, you are an awesome interviewer, getting right down to it. And Nayland is an awesome artist, who's honesty and openness is a rare treat. Speaking as an artist who's art is so different from his, I have to say that I totally related to every word of it. Here's someone who obviously walks the walk, and talks about the walk without ever losing touch with it. Thanks to you both!