Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 2, 2021
No Wrong Holes: Thirty Years of Nayland Blake
Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, September 29, 2019–January 26, 2020; MIT List Visual Arts Center (online), Cambridge, MA, October 16, 2020–February 14, 2021
No Wrong Holes: Thirty Years of Nayland Blake, installation view, MIT List Visual Arts Center, Cambridge, MA, 2020–21 (photograph © Charles Mayer, provided by MIT List Visual Arts Center)
No Wrong Holes: Thirty Years of Nayland Blake, installation view, MIT List Visual Arts Center, Cambridge, MA, 2020–21 (photograph © Charles Mayer, provided by MIT List Visual Arts Center)

No Wrong Holes: Thirty Years of Nayland Blake offered the most comprehensive survey of Blake’s work to date, traveling to the MIT List Visual Arts Center from the Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. The exhibition was organized in a loose chronology, showcasing the artist’s ongoing struggle to contain the multiplicity of lived experiences within one body or one object. For Blake this struggle is a generative one, producing work that can inhabit or frame the incongruencies between the realities of livelihood and forms of representation. As Blake is a biracial (African American and white), queer person, their multidisciplinary practice draws on subcultures and pop cultural references, challenging the fixity of identity through a series of inversions, armatures, and substitutions—translating a sweet stuffed bunny into a “leather daddy,” or putting on a costume or your hand in a puppet, to extend or alter your own sense of self. Their work heavily invokes eroticism and play, particularly probing exchanges of power—between partners or objects, within communities, and shifting versions of our own selves. As the exhibition’s title, No Wrong Holes, suggests, the artist holds space for multiple interpretations of their work and ingeniously queers wordplay to confront the very nature of inhabiting space. Any hole can be penetrated, any body can be filled or emptied. Blake’s work occupies the space of these exchanges. Complemented by the exhibition’s framework, the show presented Blake’s practice with a worker’s creative and sexual pragmatism that offers both humor and a way out of the traps of overidentification often present in queer art and discourse.

The exhibition was Blake’s first major retrospective and focused largely on the artist’s practice on the West Coast, beginning shortly after they finished their MFA at the California Institute for the Arts in 1984 and moved to San Francisco, where they lived for over a decade. This time frame coincided with the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and the rise of the “culture wars” of the 1990s, both of which the artist’s practice addresses. Blake’s visual engagement with kink subcultures puts them in conversation with artistic predecessors like Nancy Grossman, best known for her leather and zipper-clad heads, and Blake’s exploration of kinship and the grief particular to queer life finds peers in figures such as Lyle Ashton Harris and Félix González-Torres. Questions of “passing” as a biracial artist have featured prominently in recent retrospectives, perhaps most notably Adrian Piper’s at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. No Wrong Holes locates Blake within the next generation of artists grappling with a multiplicity of identities. The List Center was a natural East Coast venue for the show, since in the last five years it has shown a commitment to exhibiting work that expands contemporary sculptural and installation practices intersecting with themes of intimacy and identity.

Although Blake’s physical artworks were fully installed at the List Center, the circumstances of COVID-19 unfortunately prevented the venue from opening its doors. Therefore, the exhibition was experienced entirely online through photo documentation, interpretive materials, and virtual programming. This was a hindrance—as it prevented the viewer from experiencing the intricacies of Blake’s work in person—but it also invited deeper meditation into the kinds of subjectivity the artist cultivates. Blake sees much of their work—deemed “surrogates”—as akin to placeholders, or in their words, “armatures”­­ for sculpture, which if completed would represent the body itself and its poses. Whether the viewer is picturing the body of the artist within these surrogates or themself is up for debate, and experiencing No Wrong Holes from a distance pushed me to think more deeply about the ways Blake’s practice attempts to reorient embodiment. The show, which traces Blake’s work to the present day, moves between chronological and thematic groupings, starting with their early work in the 1980s in California, with a focus on austere forms such as their work stations, to their exploration of cartoon imagery in sculpture and drawing in the 1990s, to their continued investment in puppets, costumes, and various other avatars for the self in the 2000s.   

Considering themself primarily a sculptor, Blake often manipulates prefabricated materials and objects. Their play with formal variety is found throughout the exhibition, seen in the artist’s diverse use of stuffed animals, leather, food, and medical equipment. Blake’s work stations, for example, utilize the sterile steel and molded-plastic forms of medical equipment, meant to connote BDSM sexual practices and conflate them with other cultural references. When talking about their early work in the late 1980s in San Francisco, Blake recalled how materials found in their gallery shows could also be found in shops around the corner. For the artist, the differences between a studio, a gallery, a bedroom, and a dungeon matter very little: each are about the ways we make meaning from our emotions surrounding particular experiences. One of the most ubiquitous forms throughout Blake’s work and within the exhibition is the soft and plush bunny, repeated in numerous drawings, sculptures, and performances. Cartoons were a primary influence on Blake, and the bunny found in groups of drawings like After the Turner Diaries (1996–97) recalls those in comic strips. Bugs Bunny, a gray trickster rabbit in between black and white, seen in Birthday Present (1993), appealed to the artist because of his shape-shifting, and often cross-dressing, nature. The bunny, associated with both prey and promiscuity, is utilized not only as a formal strategy but also as a fulcrum to explore themes of human and sexual bondage and the exchanges of power that happen in our social worlds. In their video Starting Over (2000), Blake dons a white bunny suit that weighs approximately 150 pounds, the weight of their partner, Philip Horvitz. Off camera, Horvitz gives choreography commands that Blake follows on an elevated platform, dancing and performing in the suit to the point of exhaustion. Blake’s increasing fatigue as they enact orders from this unseen intimate partner places control and pleasure in relation and challenges models of coupledom. Blake turns questions of passivity and preordained roles upside down. For Blake, performance is “never passive in any direction.”

The show was accompanied by virtual programs, including a conversation between No Wrong Holes curator Jamillah James and Blake and a virtual walk-through guided by the artist. The List Center’s conversation between James and Blake, moderated by assistant curator Selby Nimrod, was one of the most enriching virtual programs I have experienced. James and Blake have an ease and understanding with each other that added biographical and anecdotal context. Notably, Blake participated in the conversation from their bedroom. As viewers, we could see the artist’s bed, tchotchkes, and piles of books, affirming Blake’s insistence that their artistic practices and personal investments are both intimate and indistinguishable.

In an effort to diminish the lack of in-person experience, the virtual walk-through of No Wrong Holes presented video footage of the exhibition and close-up details of the artworks. The video offered striking details of Blake’s 2017 costume Crossing Object (Inside Gnomen). Influenced by the furry community, a subculture with an interest in anthropomorphic animals embodied through art and role play, Crossing Object features a hybrid bear/bison costume that was worn by Blake. Buttons were pinned to the entire costume by audience members who whispered their secrets into the small objects. The displayed work, as something formerly filled by a body and entrusted with the intimacies of others, holds an auratic lure. This video underscores the richness of Blake’s work and highlights aspects of the exhibition impossible to experience from afar, since the altered experience of No Wrong Holes did not permit viewers to experience the sensory dimensions of Crossing Object. A similar example is the aromatic Feeder 2 (1998), a house made of gingerbread.

Faced with making No Wrong Holes accessible online, the List transformed the experience of Blake’s record collection, Ruins of a Sensibility (1972–2002). Exhibited with a DJ set, the display was intended to be interactive, allowing viewers to make new meanings out of a shared set of cultural touchstones. The List turned this experience into a series of playlists for people to listen to from afar, curated by Blake, List Center director Paul Ha, and the List’s installation crew. The sonic component of Ruins of a Sensibility translated into a virtual and socially distanced experience of Blake’s work, allowing questions of embodiment, interaction, and the role of culture in self-formation to take place in the individual spaces of each person experiencing the artist’s work.

No Wrong Holes shows how serious play can be. Questions about the body’s limits, cleanliness, touch, safety, and control were prominent in the early years of Blake’s practice as the HIV/AIDS epidemic was rampant. Currently, these same questions find their way to the center of discourse, and COVID-19 specifically shaped the experience of the exhibition. Blake’s work, shifting and evolving in form, consistently asks of the self: where is the outside of social acceptance, of your own tolerance, and the limit that brings you into concert with another? The presentation of Blake’s work in No Wrong Holes was no exception.

Kimber Chewning
PhD Candidate, History of Art & Architecture, Boston University