4.7 / Review


By Matt Sussman January 17, 2013

After my third and final visit to FREE!LOVE!TOOL!BOX! over its four-month run at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA), I left Nayland Blake’s exhibition still asking “Is that all there is?” It’s a question that the exhibition—part ad hoc rec center and part homage to SoMa’s hedonistic past—also asks of the historical and cultural terrain it surveys. Despite its gestures toward communal experience, FREE!LOVE!TOOL!BOX! is ultimately about the solitary contemplation of things past. In his queer staging of the temporary structures and disposable objects through which we shape ourselves and find others like us, Blake foregrounds the ways historical distance abrades our connections to these things and to each other.

The exhibition represents a homecoming for the Brooklyn-based Blake, who first moved to San Francisco in the mid-1980s after graduating from CalArts. When he arrived in San Francisco, he immersed himself in the city’s downtown queer art and alternative club scenes, which intersected around spaces such as Kiki gallery and Club Uranus. Blake evokes this time from his personal history, opening onto a broader evocation of the long-standing cross-pollination of San Francisco’s artistic and sexual undergrounds.1 Blake communicates this through set pieces that are mostly constructed from found objects, plywood, plastic sheeting, and ribbon. 

Against one wall is a huge photo reproduction of Chuck Arnett’s highly stylized black-and-white mural of leatherfolk, whom Blake has festooned with a tangle of ribbons. The original image once graced the Tool Box, a now demolished gay bar that stood just three blocks from YBCA’s current location. Arnett was a local gay artist who, in the 1960s and ’70s, used the bars and backrooms of SoMA’s emergent leather scene as both canvas and muse. Ironically, the Tool Box mural netted Arnett the greatest media exposure of his career when it was featured prominently in LIFE magazine’s watershed 1964 photo-essay “Homosexuality in America.”

That same year, 1964, a four-year-old Blake and his father created a Pollock-esque drip painting; this forty-eight-year-old work now hangs in “Ruins of a Sensibility (1972―2002).” In this small room, filled with Blake’s enviable vinyl collection, viewers are invited to DJ from the artist’s records; the output can be listened to via an online livestream. Other structures in the exhibition—referred to in the wall text as “stations”—take further architectural cues from the interiors of gay bars.

Nayland Blake. FREE!LOVE!TOOL!BOX!, 2012; installation view, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco. Courtesy of Yerba Buenca Center for the Arts. Photo: JW White/Phocasso.
Nayland Blake. Ruins of a Sensibility, 1972-2002; installation view, FREE!LOVE!TOOL!BOX!, 2012; Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco. Courtesy of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Photo: JW White/Phocasso.

In a “video studio” studded with glory holes, participants are encouraged to make short movies with their smartphones; a raised catwalk is posed for a show, and in a backroom-esqe hallway, visitors are invited to cover the walls in scrawls of graffiti. A visually dominant component of the exhibition consists of long shelves, which span the height of the gallery wall and invite visitors to leave behind an object of personal significance. This odd collection is mirrored in the online archive of images and memories that has been collecting on the show’s dedicated Tumblr page, whose content has been submitted by members of the public.

With its solipsistic relational propositions and deadpan sense of humor, the show may have been more aptly titled “Ruins of a Sensibility.” Upon closer inspection, the Arnett reproduction is revealed to be based on an early ’70s photo of the mural, taken when it was the last remaining vestige of the bar it once decorated; a pile of rubble is visible in the image’s lower right-hand corner. Blake appropriates another artifact of SoMA nightlife: the Stud bar’s iconic black and white flag, which Blake has rearranged to spell “DUST.”2 Several of these mournful pennants hang among plastic bags and coils of electric lights as part of a ceiling-mounted assemblage suggestive of a Maypole (or, in contrast, of an inverted trash heap). And on various temporary walls is scrawled an address with an arrow pointing to nowhere, a signpost for another place that no longer exists, or perhaps never did.

Much of the SoMA that Arnett knew was the stuff of legend by the time Blake moved to San Francisco; in the same way, Blake’s salad days of the late ’80s and early ’90s have become the source of much mythologizing and stylistic appropriation by the current crop of queers seeking to, as Arnett put it in his favorite maxim, “freek freely” (sic). FREE!LOVE!TOOL!BOX!’s pop-up public archive of personal signifiers, belonging to both Blake and to those who have visited the show, presents a stop-gap effort to forestall the erasure of those aforementioned histories. It’s significant that this happens at a time when more and more of the city’s older gay watering holes are shuttering and tech companies keep setting up shop in SoMA.

At the same time, as a participatory experience, FREE!LOVE!TOOL!BOX! is largely passive: leave an object, attend a talk, record one’s experiences in one of the accompanying printed “Workbooks.” And its activities are primarily unidirectional rather than truly interactive: upload a video shot on-site, DJ a set that is streamed in real time. I never wound up having a meaningful interaction with another visitor in the moment despite my aleatory surroundings. And even after I made multiple visits, it was hard to say exactly what had been shifted or added each time I stopped by, even though there always seemed to be more piled up. This sense of indeterminate creep only underscores the impression that, in the final tally, the accumulation of stuff is really an index for the show’s temporal duration. 3

In ensuring that every viewer is essentially late to the party, FREE!LOVE!TOOL!BOX! complicates Nicolas Bourriard’s privileging of the here and now. In Relational Aesthetics, Bourriard writes that “it seems more pressing to invent possible relations with our neighbors in the present than to bet on a happier tomorrow.” Instead, Blake’s installation asks us to question what kind of community is possible when we, rather than merely turn away from the utopian promise of futurity, turn further still to answer the call of a past that is perhaps just as foreclosed.

FREE!LOVE!TOOL!BOX! is on view at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, in San Francisco, through January 27, 2013.


  1. This was a through-line of the series of guest talks and panel discussions that took place in the gallery during the exhibition’s run. Topics included the history of SoMa’s leather scene; the intersections of queerness and punk rock, particularly around Queercore and zine culture; and alternative nightlife culture.
  2. The Stud, which still exists at its second location at Ninth and Harrison streets, is one of San Francisco’s longest operating gay bars. In addition to hosting the likes of Sylvester, its original location also featured murals by Arnett that were far more psychedelic and “swishy” in their aesthetic than his piece for the Tool Box.
  3. In a fitting compromise, after the show has been de-installed, Blake will photograph and catalog each user-submitted object, which will then possibly go on to a new fate as grist for future pieces.

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