At SFAI on Monday night, New York artist Nayland Blake presented a slide-show retrospective of his wide-ranging work, while dispensing a veteran's advice about being an artist. He touched on many topics, including the gay and biracial content of his work, his preferred method of curating (works first, then the theme), and the artist’s responsibility to do something different. Several times he thanked people who made opportunities for him during the years he lived in San Francisco.
One food-for-thought remark was that content in an artist’s work develops “retrospectively.” He seemed to be saying that making work leads to meaning, rather than the reverse. And perhaps that meaning continues to accrue after the work is made, even for the artist. For keeping his work fresh, he described a tendency to react against those elements in previous work that could become shtick if repeated. He bemoaned the current tendency among young artists in New York to “work a tiny thing to death” so as to create an artistic identity and thereby make a living. He said that he advises young artists not to move to New York. In an aside about art writing, he said Artforum was most interesting and most readable when artists were doing the writing. (I think he meant the Sixties and Seventies.)
About his own work, I was surprised that he didn’t say more about the connection between his frequent representations of control—for example, arm and leg cuffs that suggest S&M—and of unfettered animality in the form of bunnies. (Pictured at top right is a sculpture from 1994 in which a child-sized nylon bunny suit covers a black porcelain figure, from the Cleveland Museum of Art website.)
A particularly interesting sidebar was his discussion of the use of photographs to document artwork. He announced that he has decided not to use photography to document his most recent work. This is because he’s grown suspicious of photography and the “tyranny of the image.” He made a distinction between the photograph and the image captured in a photograph that can detach itself from the photograph and function in the culture as a reduced or cliché version of the artist’s work. He noted that photography’s emphasis on the optical shortchanges work that also operates through sound, depth-perception, motion, smell, etc. He has noticed a tendency for photography to establish one viewpoint on a sculpture, and for young artists to make sculpture that fronts toward an imagined camera.
One way to sidestep the photography problem is to make work that is essentially immaterial. Blake has done this by placing online ads offering to finish any book that people haven’t been able to finish on their own. This note of humor ran through his talk, as it runs through his work. Even the scary restraint pieces make you laugh (nervously).
The artist has a blog that goes back several years.