By SHANA BETH MASON, JUN 2014
Some objects, some images, some things are capable into scaring us into submission. Memory, trauma, perhaps a twisted combination of both. Varying shades of negative experiences can color a seemingly innocent artwork, but it is rarer that the object inspires fear and trepidation for reasons not quite known. I had never before experienced this kind of psychic disturbance until descending into the basement of Monya Rowe's eponymous gallery in the Lower East Side, where Nayland Blake's installation Jewels of Glory took up residence.
There are other works in the exhibition, of course, from respected artists such as Tony Matelli (a xerox of a self-eviscerating, emotional rant appears), Nancy Grossman (a lithograph, seemingly a concept, for one of her signature Gunhead pieces made between 1975-81 is present), and Lyle Ashton Harris (with an eerie collage made from a greeting card and bloody-looking stamped letters). But without debate, Blake's subterranean situation illicits a sensation bordering simultaneous bouts of subliminal terror and irresistible fascination: like a child who sees a hot iron on the ironing board, who knows its not safe, but still yearns to touch it.
The air underneath the gallery is dense and musty, smelling of aged concrete and the faint tinge of acrylic paint (the walls, themselves, are naked; it must be assumed the slight acrylic aroma came from things hung in there before). Only three exposed light bulbs, one plain and two red, cast a dim glow in the tiny space. At its center, a contraption that could be either a fetish instrument or a torture device sits quietly, almost in wait. Razor wires are strung between two brushed-steel structures: one resembling a bench (with its bars too far apart to offer comfortable respite) and the other like a small card table whose entire frame looks scrunched together. The wires travel into empty space and directly into the faces of the two oblong walls. Dangling from a separate wire are craft-store-bought crystal gems. From another, affixed to a metal stand, a fake white hair extension twisted into a braid, along with a square of zebra-printed fabric.
From the moment the installation comes into full view, a creeping uncertainty surrounds it. Is it electrified? Is something within or about it supposed to pop, buzz, crack, or otherwise scare the shit out of anyone within inches of it? Are voices about to issue forth from some hidden audio source? Blake has seemingly captured all of the latent qualities of a violence, appropriate to the show's title and general content, not only in an object, but in the space that encapsulates it.
Blake's identity as a pansexual man plays well into the construction of this scenario: it is a silent, transgressive device that knows no gender, no sexual orientation, no untapped desires. Jewels of Glory isn't so much disturbing as it is distressing, generating a fight-or-flight chemical response as would exist in a predatory animal. This is, for an aesthetic object, both cruel and brilliant. After five minutes, I was still reeling from the wave of endorphins signaling my brain to beware of what I was observing. Once upstairs, I met the man himself, appearing something like a character out of Duck Dynasty. As if I didn't feel like I was prey, already. Nevertheless, I was a grateful and willing victim of Blake's metaphoric mastery.
Shana Beth Mason is a critic formerly based in Brooklyn now active in London, UK. Contributions include Art in America, ArtVoices Magazine, FlashArt International, InstallationMag (Los Angeles), Kunstforum.as (Oslo), The Brooklyn Rail, The Miami Rail, San Francisco Arts Quarterly (SFAQ), and thisistomorrow.info (London).
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