Visits Leather and Steel
by Scott Weaver
the support of the Ellen Johnson Visiting Artist Fund, Nyland Blake,
an artist from New York, gave a talk to a scattered crowd of students
and faculty. Blakes talk began with a selected retrospective
of his career offering a view into the life and process of an artist.
Beginning with his senior thesis at Bard College and ending with
his most recent works, Blakes work finds expression mostly
in installation, video and more recently, in drawing.
other narratives, Blakes works are loaded with sexual and
racial imagery. For example, in a series of works he calls Workstations,
he uses leather and steel to reproduce 19th century restraining
techniques. Blake sees the idea of bondage as sculpture. For
me, bondage is about the eroticisation of the pose, he said.
This series, as with much of his work, is about the creation and
activation of an object. One of the things he tries to do is to
leave what he calls a mental space for the viewer, where
the activation and meaning of an object occurs simultaneously in
the viewers mind. The thought-process behind these methods lead
Blake to experiment with the dynamic created by his actual presence
in the gallery space.
From the activation and application of objects, Blakes focus
shifted to the use and meaning behind substances. Works such as
Water, Wine, Vinegar, Piss and a work involving mens
handkerchiefs stained with various substances, then framed and hung
on a gallery wall, were important for Blake as he understood the
power held in the connotations of the medium alone. This was a very
self-conscious move for his work; he began to dissect and find meaning
in the elements of his work, making it clear that in certain respects
the medium is more important than the object itself.
an art world where artists are continually being asked to justify
the merit of their work, artists often resort to rather standard
and vague statements about the visibility or invisibility of race
within our society, or about the images and words from mainstream
culture. Blake did not actively avoid these tendencies. However,
being forced to subscribe to a protocol, where art can easily fit
under preexisting labels and definitions, is not what informs Blakes
work. His process is much more of a perpetual self-analysis in an
attempt to move his own practice forward toward an expression of
some aspect of his identity.
By making a piece of art, you are manifesting your presence
in the world Blake said. It is, however, a daunting and perhaps
even impossible task to express your essence on a daily basis. His
physical person is often an integral part of his art, which shows
the extent to which he personalizes his expression. In many of his
performance and video installations, Blake is at once the subject
and the object. In Gorge, a video piece, a shirtless
black man stands over the seated and likewise shirtless Blake, hand-feeding
him doughnuts for one-hour straight. This piece deals with a number
of issues, but most importantly race and sexuality. As a gay artist
from a biracial family, these issues are an integral part of Blakes
identity, yet he steers away from a definition that is purely gay
or race oriented.
For Blake, the meaning of art comes from its context. This is the
moment where an artist becomes aware of the audience and the public.
I believe very strongly that it is the artists job to
be as fully present as possible, he says, but admits that
this is a process that the artist goes through in the studio. An
attitude like this one allows the audience to approach the work
as a source of inspiration and engagement. However, as Blake pointed
out, a museum or gallery context provides for only certain forms
of expression, and moreover, reaches only a limited audience. Over
the years, like many artists, Blake has published a number of zines,
which was a new way for him to interact with people and to engage
in a community.
In this line of thought, Blake persues a holistic approach to his
work. I think its better to make and then examine and
interrogate your work. Then you have something to start from instead
of waiting around to find your little bit of truth, which you are
then going to push out into the world, Blake said. Blakes
art has become a self-conscious process which requires attention
to both himself and his context. Blake sees the work he did as a
graduate student at California Institute for the Arts as high in
volume but without direction. I began to see the limitations
of finding an evocative object, adding a catch phrase and having
that equal art, he said. The process of reexamining the clichés
into which his art repeatedly falls provides the remarkable forward
momentum to his ever-changing body of work.