Blake's sense of identity packed with emotion

Artist has a feel for reaching soul in offbeat ways

ArtReview

March 06, 2003|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

The funny-looking rabbit suit could be called an inside joke: It's actually loaded down with 140 pounds of weights sewn into the seams. If you wore it, you'd feel as heavy as you would on Jupiter. But you want to try it anyway, just to see how it looks in a mirror.

Or, how about a child's playhouse the size of a garden shed that's made entirely of gingerbread? You can smell it halfway across the room - and as soon as you get close, you want to start tearing hunks off the thing and eating them.

Or, you smell all that gingerbread and odd thoughts pop into your head, like: "Got milk?"

After a while, you might well ask: Is this an appropriate way to respond to an artwork?

The answer is, well, yes, especially if the artist is named Nayland Blake.

Blake, a 43-year-old New York native whose performance pieces, installations and videos are the subject of a mind-boggling exhibition at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, makes art from the gut. And because of that, you can't help reacting to his art viscerally.

Nayland Blake: Some Kind of Love showcases some of the large-scale installations, videos and other objects that Blake has created over the last decade around the issue of identity.

During the 1980s he was one of the bad boys of the conceptual art movement, which emphasized content over form and which often took thorny issues of race, gender and sexuality as material for making artworks.

Blake first made a reputation with his over-the-top performance pieces about how ambiguous the idea of identity really is.

Blake is both bi-racial and gay. He has a white mother and a black father, and many of his performance pieces refer to his gay partner.

Yet you wouldn't necessarily know Blake was black if you saw him on the street. He's a pale, somewhat portly man with a full beard: He could be almost anything. And, of course, there's no way of telling he's gay.

Blake knows what it means to be, in the memorable phrase of author Ralph Ellison, an "invisible man." It is to be born into a limbo world full of ambiguities where practically all the neatly marked social definitions just don't apply.

How do you talk about that? How do you make other people feel even a little bit of what you're feeling - especially if it's going to make them uncomfortable, which it probably will?

Blake's answer is to let it all hang out. In pieces like Starting Over Suit he does a little soft shoe dance in a white rabbit suit that weighs 140 pounds (I'm your bunny, honey), because that's what it feels like to hold up your end of a relationship that's going nowhere - really heavy after awhile. Tape the dance on video to show in a museum later.

Or gorge yourself for an hour straight on watermelon, pizza, hot dogs, cake, etc., with a clock in the background and the camera running.

In Gorge, he lets his partner stuff him with food until he's obviously uncomfortable, then lets himself be stuffed some more - because that's what it feels like when another person who wants to love you and take care of you also wants to control you - and the way they do it is by giving you things. After awhile so much "nurturing" seems like punishment. (The rabbit is also Blake's wry symbol for the stereotypical sexually promiscuous gay man of the pre-AIDS era.)

And what about the giant gingerbread house? Maybe it's a metaphor for the obsessions of childhood, and also our craving to remain children even after we've grown up.

Yet these are the kinds of problems that everybody has to deal with, whether you're black or white, straight or gay, male or female. But most people don't have to think about it too much, because society has already programmed them to react in certain ways. Don't rock the boat, stay married; if you're single, get married - but be sure it's to a person of the opposite sex and of the same race.

Blake's experience on the cusps of all those boundaries makes the conventional wisdom seem uniquely useless in his case. But the fact is, the conventional wisdom often doesn't work for conventional people, either.

And that's the beauty of his artwork. It reminds us, sometimes subtly and sometimes with in-your-face bluntness, that being human is universally painful, that who we are is not a given but something we have to struggle for, that the big questions are all variations on a question of identity, and that the main thing in life is to know thyself.

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