Category: Exhibitions

Exhibitions: Nick Cave at ICA Boston

cave-soundsuits3Nick Cave. Installation view. All photos by the author.

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.

cave-soundsuits5Nick Cave. Installation view.

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.

cave-soundsuit20133Nick Cave: Soundsuit, 2013.

cave-soundsuit20134Nick Cave: Soundsuit, 2013 (detail).

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.

cave-soundsuit2012Nick Cave: Soundsuit, 2012 (detail).

cave-soundsuits2Nick Cave. Installation view.

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.

cave-soundsuit20132-2Nick Cave: Soundsuit, 2013 (detail).

cave-soundsuit2014Nick Cave: Soundsuit, 2014 (detail).

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.

cave-untitled2013-3Nick Cave: Untitled, 2013.

cave-untitled2013-1Nick Cave: Untitled, 2013 (detail).

cave-untitled2013-2Nick Cave: Untitled, 2013 (detail).

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.

cave-sculpture2013-1Nick Cave: Sculpture, 2013 (detail).

cave-sculpture2013-3Nick Cave: Sculpture, 2013 (detail).

cave-sculpture-4Nick Cave: Sculpture, 2013.

cave-sculpture-6Nick Cave: Sculpture, 2013 (detail).

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.

Exhibitions: Isa Genzken at MoMA NYC

Isa GenzkenNote: All photos taken by the writer.

With a career spanning nearly forty years (and counting) and a body of work notable for both its breadth and variety, Isa Genzken is an artist well worth a look. Her current show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York is a compelling retrospective, covering everything from her early minimalist sculpture and miniature assemblages to her street photography and memorial designs for the World Trade Center. Born and raised in Germany, Genzken has primarily worked in Cologne and Berlin, with some stints in New York. She studied under painter Gerhard Richter at the Dusseldorf Fine Arts Academy, and the two were married for a time after she graduated. Her work is wildly diverse, but characterized by its mix of wacky, irreverent hodgepodge and Minimalist gravitas. The exhibition galleries abound with so many different objects and images, blending advertising slick and experimental painting with large-scale industrial sculpture and colorful found materials. I was delighted with each new room, each new discovery, for I was largely unfamiliar with Genzken’s range and output.

The show opens with a brand new piece, entitled Actors. A number of assemblaged mannequin figures are arranged against a backdrop of magazine covers and headlines. Their eclectic collage elements make for a grouping both funny and confrontational, with the title suggesting a stage set. Walking into the exhibition proper, the galleries are organized chronologically and generally separated by decade. Genzken’s 70s work sees her burgeoning engagement with Minimalism as well as found imagery, with slender canoe-like forms that sweep across the floor, and enlarged prints of advertisements for stereo systems (the artist was fascinated by the aesthetic forms of audio equipment).

Genzken-Actors3Isa Genzken: Actors, 2013.
Genzken-Actors2Isa Genzken: Actors, 2013.
Genzken-actors1Isa Genzken: Actors, 2013.
Isa Genzken first galleryIsa Genzken: Retrospective, gallery view.
Genzken-Basic Research 1989Isa Genzken: Basic Research, 1989.
Genzken-MLR 1992Isa Genzken: MLR, 1992.
Genzken-gallery view Isa Genzken: Retrospective, gallery view.
Genzken-Little Window 1994 Isa Genzken: Little Window, 1994.
Genzken-Lamp 1996Isa Genzken: Lamp, 1996.

In the 80s and 90s she moved on to concrete and resin sculpture- some fairly monumental in size- and textured paintings. I loved the feel of this gallery, with its sturdy, large-scale works in different industrial materials and geometric forms, a few reaching up towards the skylight. They are reminiscent of ruined buildings and cityscapes, but somewhat whimsical in their tactility and shapes. Along the walls are various experimental canvases, adding some color to the room but generally maintaining the subdued tones of the sculpture. The MLR series of paintings were made with spray paint and stencils, with layered compositions that recall architectural patterns and photogram silhouettes. The Basic Research series was created through frottage (a rubbing-out technique), resulting in a fascinating textured effect that had me doing double takes. A lot of her work had me doing double takes, actually. Genzken does not go for the obvious effect, combining and altering various familiar shapes and objects in unexpected ways.

By 2000, she was making the kitschy assemblage sculpture she is perhaps most known for, as seen in the sardonic series Fuck the Bauhaus. With these frankly silly works, she knowingly goes against the Bauhaus school’s belief in function over form, putting together wonderfully convoluted and useless- but vaguely architectural- combines. Around this time she began using found objects and materials found in hardware stores or street fairs. She continued to create abstract sculpture but in using such objects there is a note of representation and figuration seen in them. Her works also became more suited to site-specific installation, with series of sculptures coming together to form one immersive room, while also allowing her space for political and social commentary. The American Room– a set of assemblages that pokes fun at material culture, capitalism, and nationalism in the United States- and Empire/Vampire: Who Kills Death– assemblages paired with a film that act as commentary on the American presence of Iraq- are examples of this.

Genzken-Fuck the Bauhaus 2 2000Isa Genzken: Fuck the Bauhaus 2, 2000.
Genzken-Fuck the Bauhaus 4 2000Isa Genzken: Fuck the Bauhaus 4, 2000.
imageIsa Genzken: Social Facade, 2002.
Genzken-The American Room 2004 Isa Genzken: The American Room, 2004 (detail).
Genzken-Empire/Vampire: Who Kills Death 2003-04Isa Genzken: Empire/Vampire: Who Kills Death, 2003-2004 (detail).
Genzken-Empire/Vampire: Who Kills Death 2003-04 2Isa Genzken: Empire/Vampire: Who Kills Death, 2003-2004 (detail).
Genzken-Empire/Vampire: Who Kills Death 2003-04 3Isa Genzken: Empire/Vampire: Who Kills Death, 2003-2004 (detail).

The final gallery shows a grouping of Genzken’s Ground Zero project, produced in response to a call for design proposals for the World Trade Center site. Genzken was in New York City during the 9/11 attacks, and these works serve as her response to the event. Together they form a sort of eclectic miniature city, with buildings constructed out of found materials both high- and low-end. The artist stresses celebration and fun over sorrow, transforming the space into a happy memorial to the city itself.

Genzken’s tremendous output is of course only partially represented here, but MoMA has collected together an impressive array of the artist’s works, reflecting her personal and professional development since the early 1970s. With such a diverse oeuvre, I responded differently to certain movements in her work. Her concrete and resin sculpture is fantastic, her miniature assemblages are complex and often delightful, and her abstract paintings are surprisingly intricate. I was less compelled by her earlier minimalist sculpture and mid-90s street photography, however. Ultimately, Isa Genzken: Retrospective is a fun, varied exhibit that has so much to offer: art historical references, urban culture, political commentary, visual wit, and a good dose of wacky humor.

Genzken-Light (Ground Zero) 2008Isa Genzken: Light (Ground Zero), 2008.
Genzken-Ground Zero roomIsa Genzken: Ground Zero, 2008 – gallery view.
Genzken-Untitled 2012 Isa Genzken: Untitled, 2012.
Genzken-friend portraits 1998-2000Isa Genzken: Kai, 2000; Isa, 2000; Dan, 1999; Andy, 1999; Wolfgang, 1998. Portraits of Genzken’s friends, including artists Dan Graham and Wolfgang Tillmans.
Genzken-Gay Baby series 1997Isa Genzken: Gay Baby series, 1997.
Genzken-Slot Machine 1999-2000Isa Genzken: Slot Machine, 1999-2000.

Exhibitions: Christina Ramberg at ICA Boston

ramberg-waiting lady-1972-flickrChristina Ramberg: Waiting Lady, 1972. via flickr

The human body as a subject has long fascinated visual artists. It has fallen prey to distortion and monstrosity, to sexualization and idolization, and so many other representations. In the 1970s many artists involved in the rising feminist movement turned to the female form as a symbol of oppression as well as power, some referencing Mother Earth metaphors and others satirizing 1950s domesticity and feminized consumerism. It became easy for any woman artist to be labeled “feminist” (a dirty word to many) regardless of her actual intentions or activism. While many artists actively pursue goals relating to feminism and combating prejudices, others are more ambiguous in their work, more private about their own goals or beliefs. It is this understated approach that makes the work of Christina Ramberg so fascinating. Her work can easily be interpreted through a feminist lens, but does not endeavor to give the viewer any clear answers or meanings.

Based in Chicago, Ramberg became associated with the loose-knit group of artists known as “Hairy Who,” a subset of the Imagists- Chicago artists generally known for their humor, grotesque surrealism, and disconnect from the more mainstream New York art world in the 1960s and 70s. Her influences range from geometric Cubist Fernand L├ęger to 1950s “damsel-in-distress” comics. I also see a bit of the Art Deco figuration of Tamara de Lempicka in the angular forms and notable sheen of her paintings. Ramberg’s work is characterized by stylized forms, close-up and cropped body parts, binding and bandage motifs, and references to women’s lingerie and hair. Though she had several solo shows during her lifetime, her career was tragically cut short in 1995 when she passed away of a neurological disease. She is popular with collectors but rarely exhibited in museums, pushed to the side in more mainstream discussions of the Imagists, women artists, and contemporary painting.

ramberg-istrian silver lady-1974-whitneyChristina Ramberg: Istrian Silver Lady, 1974. via The Whitney Museum tumblr

The Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston’s exhibit Christina Ramberg (on view through March 2) focuses on the artist’s major paintings made between 1971 and 1981, featuring a selection of 13 works. It is a small but effective show, exploring the artist’s development over a significant period. Her style is sleek and flat, mostly acrylic paint on masonite. Her palette is subdued, often limited to brown, tan, and black tones with the occasional dark blue or bold purple. With their cropped bodies and surreal distortions, the paintings invite closer scrutiny, and their memorable bright sheen effect has to be seen in person.

1988_ramberg_blackwidow_bChristina Ramberg: Black Widow, 1971. via The Renaissance Society

One of my favorite pieces is Black Widow from 1971, one of her first large paintings. The catalogue shares an interesting quote from Ramberg, as she reminisces about watching her mother get dressed for a night out when she was a little girl: “I can remember being stunned by how it transformed her body… she’s transforming herself into the kind of body men want. I thought it was fascinating… in some ways, I thought it was awful.” This painting is one of a series showing women’s torsos in antiquated lingerie, with flesh tightly bound in black satin and lace. By hiding the figure’s face and limbs, Ramberg de-humanizes them and thus literally objectifies them.

The artist moved onto more abstracted paintings, with figural forms that merge with phallic forms and repeating motifs of long strands of hair and wooden chairs. Her tendencies move from voyeurism to surrealism. The latest works in the exhibit showcase Ramberg at her most abstract, with androgynous torsos and body parts made up of different objects, patterns, and materials. She also veers slightly away from her penchant for symmetry, with some bodies partially falling apart from the center. Freeze and Melt from 1981 shows a body as an assemblage, composed of furniture parts, wire mesh, wooden blocks, and clothing.

ramberg-Freeze_and_MeltChristina Ramberg: Freeze and Melt, 1981. via Boston Beyond

Over these ten years of experimenting with the human form, showing the transformative power of clothes, hair, and objects, Ramberg reveals a refusal to be obvious. She plays with gender, with feminine sexuality, with stereotypes, and creates her own iconography that lends itself to multifarious readings. The exhibit is a small but powerful one, and allows a neglected artist a worthy space and surely many new admirers.



Janelle Porter. Christina Ramberg (ICA Boston, 2012).