Last month the Institute of Contemporary Art debuted two new exhibitions in their main galleries. One is a phenomenal video installation by William Kentridge, which I cannot recommend enough, but I’m not here to talk about that. I’m here to talk about Nick Cave. No, not that Nick Cave. That Nick Cave. The Chicago-based sculptor and performance artist who’s been making a big splash in the art world just within the past few years. I don’t think I’d heard of him before 2011 or so, and now I feel like I see him everywhere. He is known for his Soundsuits, a series of meticulously crafted wearable sculpture that can be displayed statically or worn in dance performances. The ICA’s show, simply titled Nick Cave, displays a mixture of the artist’s latest work, with a large room full of Soundsuits and a smaller gallery that shows off his playful assemblages.
Growing up in the small town of Fulton, Missouri with a single mom and seven brothers, Cave studied art and dance while at the Kansas City Art Institute in the late 1970s. He went through graduate school in the 80s and has been based in Chicago since getting his MFA. However, it was not until 1991 that he began making the type of work he has since become known for. That March, like many other artists, Cave was appalled and moved to action by video footage of the Rodney King beatings. His artistic approach immediately shifted as he responded to notions of racial profiling (then heavily debated across the US) and his own personal experiences as a black male. He sought to incorporate self-protection, a kind of second skin, into his work, and after combining hard twigs into a wearable costume, the first Soundsuit was born. Since then, he has made over 500 of these works, notable especially for their colorful patterning, eclectic materials, detailed construction, and sound qualities when used in dance.
The suits exhibited at the ICA- almost all from 2012-2013- seem like an attempt to show the artist’s multifarious output, with works made of beads, buttons, crocheted blankets, sequins, furniture, and other materials. Many critics and curators are especially keen to point out how Cave blends craft and fine art, how he is transcending these traditionally separate spheres. And that is definitely true, but it’s not like he’s the first person to do it (in fact, his “Button Suit” idea was preceded by about 60 years by Iowa housewife Ruby Anne Kittner), so I don’t think that’s what makes them special. The artist himself has even stated that he considers them fine art as opposed to costume, saying of his process, “How do you keep it art before it becomes costume? It’s such a fine line. One false move and you can screw it up” (quoted in Sojourn, 68). For him, it’s about elevating these craft techniques to the level of fine art, not equating craft with fine art. I was first really just pulled in by their skilled making, achieved with the help of numerous assistants who furiously sew buttons and sequins according to Cave’s designs. Each suit offers so much to the viewer who takes their time to look closely.
After learning about their connection to the Rodney King beatings, and their original function as protection or disguise, I found myself looking at them differently, considering how such violent inspiration has morphed into these joyous, extravagant, even ridiculous creations. I think my favorite is his series of white buttoned suits with circular faces, reminiscent of spacesuits. They are beautiful but hard, with spikey wire protruding from the facial area, completely hiding the figure beneath and creating an antagonistic impression. Though the Soundsuits cannot complete their full function as musical performance aides when presented immobile as sculpture, I do appreciate the opportunity to take in every detail. I wonder if there couldn’t have been videos of their use in performance within the gallery, though, or perhaps Cave didn’t want that. It just felt like something so vibrant and known to be noise-making shouldn’t be encased in a room so quiet and still.
Though I went into the show with Soundsuits on the mind, I left with a greater love for his assemblages. There’s a large wall piece made up of multiple panels, all constructed out of various found objects. The backings are complex steel armature made by husband and wife fabricators Ross and Elizabeth Fiersten, onto which Cave weaves in materials he’s collected from flea markets and other sources, including beads, ceramic birds, phonograph horns, and textiles. He says he wants these works to be associated with refuge and contemplation: “That’s a big part of it, creating this sort of field to escape in and maybe hide within” (quoted in Sojourn, 64). I like them for their complexity. Like the Soundsuits they reward viewers giving the work a close inspection, and I kept finding new objects and combinations the more I looked.
The final set of works in the show are Cave’s adorable and kind of weird dog assemblage sculpture known as “Rescues.” Begun in 2012, these pieces grew out of Cave’s discovery of a life-size ceramic poodle at a flea market. From there, the artist placed numerous dog figurines on couches, surrounding them with intricate halos of found objects. They have a fantasy element blended with a kitschy opulence, and like the wall piece they offer a wealth of fun details. Cave says they are meant to evoke various qualities associated with dogs, like loyalty, protection, and power, but honestly I think they’re just kinda funny. They’re strange and beautiful and cute and just… unexpected. My personal favorite works in the show, I think.
It’s not a comprehensive exhibition but it is a varied one, with a good sampling of Cave’s recent output. I do wish something of the Soundsuits’ performative aspect had been incorporated into the show, but I believe they have typically been exhibited just as sculpture in other museums. All in all it’s a good show, and I now have more appreciation for Cave as an artist (as well as his assistants for their impressive handiwork). Seen with the Kentridge installation the ICA is offering an interesting pairing, with both artists somehow concerned with black identity and history (though Cave’s connection to these ideas is barely touched upon in the exhibition itself).
Kyle MacMillan and William Morrow. Nick Cave: Sojourn. Denver Art Museum, 2013.
Leslie Umberger. Messages & Magic: 100 Years of Collage and Assemblage in American Art. John Michael Kohler Arts Center, 2008.