Category: Museums

Exhibitions: “Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963-2010” at MoMA NYC

Sigmar PolkeSigmar Polke: Untitled, 1975. via Gallerist

Ever since I read my first X-Men comic and fell in love with the fuzzy German mutant Nightcrawler, I’ve been interested in German language and culture. Some people find it surprising that such a silly, kitschy thing spurred a passion that became academic, as I made twentieth-century German art and culture one of my specialties in school, and even studied there for a semester in undergrad. Today I’m feeling that the comic book connection would have been appreciated by the artist at hand, irreverent Pop and experimental kitsch genius Sigmar Polke, whose first full retrospective is currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Raised in East Germany before escaping to the West as a teenager, Polke worked at a stained glass factory before embarking on a career as a fine artist in the early 60s. He studied at the Kunstakademie Dusseldorf under influential conceptualist Joseph Beuys, but did not follow in his teacher’s mystical/political/high-concept footsteps.

Along with painter Gerhard Richter and others, he helped establish the genre of “Capitalist Realism”, an offshoot of the ubiquitous Pop Art style so common in the United States in the 1960s. Their art was made in response to the so-called “Economic Miracle” that had affected Germany in the 1950s, a sudden time of plenty after years of scarcity, leading to gluttonous consumerism and a seeming rush to forget the horrors of World War II. The rising generation of German artists often used their work to criticize the “Americanization” of their country and the frivolous lifestyle it promoted, while also seeking to come to terms with the guilt and shame of their parents’ generation and its actions under Nazi leadership. Like many Pop artists, Polke engaged with food and brand imagery, as well as department stores and Hollywood-style glamor, referencing this extreme shift in West German experience (felt especially keenly as someone who had lived in East Germany). However, the trajectory of his artistic practice became much more dynamic and varied than these early Pop works might suggest, as he spent the next several decades pushing style, media, and subject beyond their expected limits.


Sigmar Polke SchokoladenbildSigmar Polke: Chocolate Painting, 1964. via Aesthetic Perspectives

Sigmar Polke SupermarketsSigmar Polke: Supermarkets, 1976. via Hot Parade

At MoMA, hundreds of Polke’s works are collected together in a comprehensive retrospective, highlighting the artist’s versatility and various experiments. Visitors are first met with his works in the atrium, which shows off an eclectic grouping of painting, sculpture, film, and mixed media. From there, it launches into a chronological organization so that his development can be traced through the years. I get why the show is arranged this way, but it did feel kind of uninspired. There is no linear progression for Polke, he was all over the place, which allows his work to be shown in any number of ways (indeed, before he died in 2010, he had suggested a non-chronological layout for this show while it was still in the planning stages). Perhaps an exhibit that instead highlighted certain subjects he returned to, or processes, or media, or even color schemes. Not a major criticism of the show, just something I thought about as I walked through the galleries.

His variety can be overwhelming, and instead of finding a way around that curator Kathy Halbreich seems to have embraced it. This show is packed, throwing together all aspects of his output, from his home videos and sketchbooks to his wall-size canvases and photo series. And it’s great. Admittedly, because he worked in so many different styles and materials, not every work is a masterpiece, but they’re all interesting, and they all have a story behind them. Each gallery’s wall text briefly introduces a certain stage in Polke’s life- including his world travels in the 70s, his stint in New York, his many collaborations (often with the lovers he took besides his wife), his responses to current events and political happenings. However, most of the expository text is found within a booklet that visitors carry around, which details each work (there are no wall labels) and often gives extra information and anecdotes. With Polke, context means a lot. His works are often beautiful and weird and fascinating all on their own, but knowing their connection to German history and Western art history can make a big difference, as can knowing their place in his biography.

Sigmar Polke Lee Harvey OswaldSigmar Polke: Raster Drawing (Portrait of Lee Harvey Oswald), 1963. via Gallerist

Sigmar Polke FreundinnenSigmar Polke: Girlfriends, 1965/66. via Frieder Burda Museum

His series of “Raster” paintings, for example, might at first glance seem like riffs on Roy Lichtenstein’s comic book recreations, but they were actually made in response to contemporary media coverage of events in the Middle East. Polke felt that people in the West were somewhat phony for dramatically expressing their horror at the news, while only ever experiencing it through printed photographs. For these works, he meticulously painted and screenprinted the black and colored dots used in newspaper printing, forcing us to view their subjects (lifted from mass media sources) through a distorted, distanced lens. We cannot experience these subjects first hand. Few of Polke’s works make overt political statements, but many of them engage indirectly with specific issues or concerns, whether in their subversion of art historical references (take, for example, his graph-objects meant to establish a psychic connection with William Blake or his wry dig at Abstract Expressionism titled “Modern Art”) or their dispassionate iconography (such as his repeated use of swastikas in cartoonish compositions and his series of watchtower paintings on fabric).

Polke is a ridiculously difficult artist to summarize, and that’s part of what makes him and his work so fantastic. I have always loved him for his use of printed fabrics as canvas, his gestural abstraction, his abundant irreverence, his printmaking experiments; MoMA expands even further into all manner of his practices, introducing me to his films (which J. Hoberman detailed in May’s issue of Artforum) and his forays into weird materials like uranium and his psychedelic side-trips (in a loud, over-stimulated gallery that I quite liked) and his pornographic caricatures and so much more. Many commentators have noted that this feels like a group show because of the great variety of works, and I think that feel really works in its favor. Realizing that all of this came from the mind of one man encourages viewers to consider that man- how did all of these eclectic and diverse ideas and styles come together in the singular artist of Sigmar Polke? It’s a question that cannot be easily answered, but Alibis is a good start. Luckily, his wonderful work can speak for itself.

sigmar polke modern artSigmar Polke: Modern Art, 1968. via Gallerist

Sigmar PolkeSigmar Polke: Dr. Berlin, 1969-74. via Ross Smirnoff Art

Sigmar Polke Untitled (Quetta, Pakistan), 1974-1978Sigmar Polke: Untitled (Quetta, Pakistan), 1974-1978. via AF Asia

Sigmar PolkeSigmar Polke: Mu nieitnam netorruprup, 1975. via Ross Smirnoff Art

Sigmar PolkeSigmar Polke: Untitled (Dr. Bonn), 1978. via Vogue

Polke Velocitas FirmitudoSigmar Polke: Untitled (Color Experiments), 1982-86 (bottom row). Velocitas-Firmitudo, 1986 (top right). via Hyperallergic

sigmar polke watchtowerSigmar Polke: Watchtower, 1984. via Vogue

Sigmar Polke Mrs. Autumn and Her Two Daughters, 1991Sigmar Polke: Mrs. Autumn and Her Two Daughters, 1991. via AF Asia

sigmar polkeSigmar Polke: Salamander Stone, 1997. via Vogue

Exhibitions: Nathalie Djurberg and Hans Berg at ICA Boston

djurberg-glass6Nathalie Djurberg: A World of Glass, 2011. Installation view. All photos by the author.

When I heard that one of the newer exhibits at the Institute of Contemporary Art would feature stop-motion animation, I was pretty damned excited. Basically all I ever want in any visual entertainment is stop-motion animation, for real. But that description is only scratching the surface of Nathalie Djurberg’s work, produced in conjunction with her partner, Hans Berg, a composer. Djurberg combines elements of installation, sculpture, video, and sound to create her immersive room-size works, the newest of which is titled A World of Glass. For this piece, viewers enter an enclosed dark room lined with several rows of long tables, upon which rest hosts of small translucent sculpture- resembling glass but actually rendered in polyurethane. On all four walls are projected four different films, short claymation stories featuring violent and sexual interactions between humans and animals. Over the presentation Hans Berg’s eerie, ethereal soundscape plays, establishing a quiet, strange mood throughout.

Born in Sweden and now based in Berlin, Djurberg is known for her bizarre, surreal imagery and unexpected pairings of sex and violence. Scholar Nancy Princenthal sees her compositions as examinations of human and animal relationships “both from the point of view of humanity’s inherent bestiality–understood, conventionally, to mean our lust, hunger, viciousness–and from the perspective of our physical domination” (The Reckoning, 90). Her figures are crude and colorful, taking on a kind of naive look in their imperfect, thumbprinted surfaces and exaggerated facial features. In previous installations, Djurberg has created mid-size sculptures in the same style as her animated characters, as in The Parade (exhibited at the Walker in 2011). For A World of Glass, she casts household objects and kitchenwares into unreal glass-like sculptures. Viewers walk among the long tables on which they stand unguarded, treading carefully for fear of smashing them into pieces. The irony is, of course, that they are not actually glass but polyurethane, thick and sturdy despite their appearance of fragility. They are detailed and a little strange, some misshapen and even lumpen, others perfect in their recreation, all slightly aglow in the darkened space.

djurberg-glass1Nathalie Djurberg: A World of Glass, 2011. Installation view.

djurberg-glass2Nathalie Djurberg: A World of Glass, 2011. Installation view.

I like these devious little sculptures, but I’m really there for the animation, which is itself captivating, and decidedly off-putting. In one film, a naked woman is melting like butter, both helped and hindered by the advances of a large bull who attempts to lick her back into shape. In another, a naked man wrestles with crocodiles and hippos that snap their jaws in anticipation of a meal, but when he dons a red fox-like mask he seems to gain the upper hand and their battle starts to resemble an orgy. In the third, a black woman (whose features resemble a caricature, but I’m not sure if that was intentional or if it’s just the result of Djurberg’s cartoonish style) sits in a room made of ice, surrounded by various animals. She continually catches herself in a large bear trap, and the animals can only help her escape by chewing off her appendages. In the final film, a furry bison attempts to remain still in a room full of glass objects (echoing the sculptures in the gallery), but eventually knocks over several shelves and they all shatter.

djurberg-glass5Nathalie Djurberg: I am a Wild Animal, 2011.

djurberg-glass3Nathalie Djurberg: My Body is a House of Glass, 2011.

The animation is somewhat stuttery and artificial, intentionally revealing strings and armatures, never fully committing to the films’ own fantasies despite their attention to detail. I find Djurberg’s imagery frightening but captivating, confusing but thought-provoking. She has noted that a formative experience for her was when a fellow student showed a hardcore porn film to her biology class. She was twelve. The apparent juxtaposition of childlike innocence with pornographic content is central to her videos on view in A World of Glass. The characters shift between victims and aggressors multiple times, and no one appears to maintain control of their situation. The women seem to find equal parts delight and discomfort in their own sexual liberation. There is pleasure and pain, creation and destruction, humor and horror, color and darkness, and a lot of weirdness. I find the work as a whole wonderfully original, but also unsettling. Which may well be the artist’s intention. Curator Anna Stothart concludes:

“Trespassing the border between good and evil, this remarkable and unsettling work updates the traditional folktale and suggests that the hierarchies and distinctions that uphold societal organization are simply a response to the voracious, and amoral, demands of our so-called animal nature. While the lessons of A World of Glass are patently unclear, the installation invites us into an alternate world in which can confront aspects of our own desires and demons.”


Flowers & Mushrooms. Ed. Toni Stooss. Hirmer Publishers, 2014.

Eleanor Heartney, Helaine Posner, Nancy Princenthal, and Sue Scott. The Reckoning: Women Artists of the New Millennium. Prestel, 2013.

Anna Stothart. Nathalie Djurberg and Hans Berg: A World of Glass. Exhibition Booklet. Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, 2014.

Exhibitions: “Paweł Althamer: The Neighbors” at The New Museum

althamer-studyfromnature-1991Paweł Althamer: Study From Nature, 1991 (detail). All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.

I visited the New Museum in New York for the first time a few weeks ago, and had a really good experience overall. (Though that spaceship thing was kind of a let down.) It’s kind of a strange building, an assortment of rooms piled on top of each other in a jumbled tower, with each floor serving as a single exhibition space. The main exhibit on view was devoted to Polish sculptor Paweł Althamer, spanning four floors and revealing the artist’s aesthetic innovation as well as his tendency to collaborate with people outside the art world establishment. I started at the top and worked my way down, and at first found his different practices unconnected and a little confusing, but gradually these seemingly disparate elements came together in exciting ways.

The first piece, Draftsmen’s Congress, is a full-gallery installation, a notable exercise in interactivity and art-as-play. Originally presented at the Berlin Biennial in 2012, the work began as a blank white room, which over the course of the exhibition became inundated with additions in paint and crayon, splattered along every surface, including the floor. Althamer also ran sculptural workshops to make new works for the space, which over time were also painted by visitors. I was immediately taken with the concept of this piece- at first sight I was just excited to be in such a colorful, playful room, and when I realized I could add my own mark, I was overjoyed. While my companion drew adorable birdies, I wrote a few key phrases. As a whole the work is fun and liberating, allowing visitors to freely express themselves, to collaborate, and to bask in the beauty of a space completely transformed by art. The room itself is a memorial to the people who visited during the exhibition’s run, marked by people of all ages and backgrounds, recording their names or dates or thoughts or drawings. It was also a very positive space, with lots of inspirational messages written throughout. My words weren’t quite so uplifting, but still pretty important to share, I think.

althamer-draftsmanscongressPaweł Althamer: Draftsmen’s Congress, 2014.

althamer-draftsmanscongress2Paweł Althamer: Draftsmen’s Congress, 2014. My addition.

althamer-draftsmanscongress3Paweł Althamer: Draftsmen’s Congress, 2014. My addition.

The next floor collected together a number of Althamer’s sculpture, proving a rather jarring shift from the previous installation. They are primarily figurative, life-size, made of biological material such as hemp, hair, hay, animal intestines, and wood. Some are clothed, some are nude, some are metal, some are abstracted. They are all to some extent unnerving, rendering the viewer uncomfortable through their use of animal and human matter, their confrontational gazes, and, often, the disenfranchised people they represent. Some of them are the result of collaborative projects, though (Maika Pollack notes) that is not always made clear in their presentation at the museum. The dominant piece is Matea, a cast-aluminum scene that came from a 2006 action performed in tandem with Althamer’s wife, Matejka. The couple set up a traditional sculptor’s studio in Greece, with each modeling for the other. Althamer cast this piece as a way to immortalize their collaboration, and the work is as much hers as it is his. A striking work in the corner called Black Market involved African immigrants whom Althamer had met in Warsaw and invited to carve small sculptures out of ebony wood. They themselves were not skilled as artisans, and through their participation Althamer hoped to break down barriers between artist and non-artist, while also referencing racial barriers in the art world and the historical notion of Primitivism. But, their names are not included in the museum wall text- they are simply presented as generalized African immigrants. Not really making any strides for black artists here. Further stressing the collaborative (but uncredited) aspects of his practice, music played by street musicians positioned in the lobby was pumped into the gallery, though I never knew the name of the person playing. By the time I reached the lobby, I forgot to check.

althamer-matea2006-08Paweł Althamer: Matea, 2006/2008.

althamer-spinasuitcase-1996Paweł Althamer: Self Portrait in a Suitcase, 1996.

althamer-blackmarket-2007Paweł Althamer: Black Market, 2007.

althamer-selfportrait-1993Paweł Althamer: Self Portrait, 1993.

Easily my favorite work was Mezalia, a stop-motion short film and its accompanying set, produced in collaboration with artist Paulina Antoniewicz and filmmaker Jacek Taszakowski. Stop-motion animation is one of my favorite art forms and it’s always fascinating to see the behind-the-scenes elements. The set is a miniature beach, with scattered trees and buildings, and a dock stretching over a mirrored surface. Two boys sit listlessly near the water with their new toy sailboat. Across from this set, a smaller structure is made up as a derelict, unfurnished apartment with a little Althamer stand-in peering sadly out the window at the boys. The film itself was sort of hidden on the other side of the gallery in the middle of a stairway, but I was happy to find it. Its style reminded of The Adventures of Mark Twain, both visually and thematically, and the use of Althamer’s lonely figure staring into the past as a framing device laces the entire film with underlying melancholy.

althamer-mezaliaset-2010Paweł Althamer: Mezalia, 2010 (detail).

althamer-mezaliaset2-2010Paweł Althamer: Mezalia, 2010 (detail).

The final floor featured my other favorite work, The Venetians. Made for the 2013 Venice Bienniale, it is a full-gallery installation of grey sculpture with faces cast from people Althamer met on the streets of Venice. This random sampling is meant to portray the diversity of Venice while highlighting those on the fringes, a common trope in his work since his earlier projects neighbors in his hometown of Brodno, an impoverished suburb of Warsaw. The works combine realistic facial features with abstracted bodies, as slick plastic is draped and stretched over steel armatures to form limbs and torsos. Life-size, they are placed throughout the gallery in different poses, so that viewers can walk among them- as on a city street, presumably. The effect is beautiful and uncanny and kind of funny all at once. In four corners of the space an earlier project is worked into The Venetians, a video series from 2003 called So-Called Waves and other Phenomena of the Mind which includes footage of the artist taking different drugs and undergoing hypnosis. I’ll admit I didn’t really pay much attention to these pieces, mostly because I was so captivated by the sculpture. And one of them shows Althamer watching his daughter’s birth and that kind of thing grosses me out so I walked away.

althamer-venetians-2013Paweł Althamer: The Venetians, 2013 (detail).

PAWEL-slide-OP2A-superJumboPaweł Althamer: The Venetians, 2013. Installation view. via The New York Times

PAWEL-slide-4746-superJumboPaweł Althamer: The Venetians, 2013 (detail). via The New York Times

althamer-socalledwaves-2003Paweł Althamer: So-Called Waves and Other Phenomena of the Mind, 2003-04. Installation view.

This was my first exposure to Althamer, and it was a lot to process. I enjoyed the exhibit overall, taken with his bizarre sculptural style and interactive components of works like The Draftsmen’s Congress. Since my visit I’ve thought and read more about his projects, his collaborations, and how he is received and exhibited. Generally it seems he uses his art world cachet to promote his collaborative projects, and works diligently to bring his own art knowledge to communities who might not have access to art classes. The curators do not always mention or focus on the collaborators in Althamer’s work, sparking questions of authorship, but I would see that as more of a problem with the New Museum’s presentation than Althamer’s actual artistic practice.

Exhibitions: “Permission to be Global/Prácticas Globales” at MFA Boston

In my final semester of grad school I took what turned out to be my favorite course, a class focusing on Latin American art made during the Cold War period. I find Cold War history fascinating, and am always interested in how culture played a major role and how artists responded to events of the time. Imagine my sheer glee when the MFA opened its newest contemporary art exhibition, a show highlighting the collection of Ella Fontanals-Cisneros, who founded CIFO, an organization dedicated to supporting Latin American contemporary artists. Permission to be Global/Prácticas Globales features a number of major contemporary artists from various countries in Latin America, showing off installation, sculpture, painting, photography, video, and conceptual art from the 1970s through the 2010s. The exhibit is divided into four sections: Power Parodied, Borders Redefined, Occupied Geometries, and Absence Accumulated. Through the art of the past few decades, different political upheavals and cultural changes of the region are documented, while international currents in the art world are explored.

permissiontobeglobal-galleryview-netoInstallation view, including Ernesto Neto’s The Empty Time, 2004. All photos by the author.

Stepping into the Henry and Lois Foster Gallery, I was immediately met by a hanging Ernesto Neto, the very artist I was obsessing over a few weeks ago. I pretty much spent the rest of my visit with a smile on my face, because I was so excited to see all these artists whom I’d studied, but had never encountered in an exhibition space. The “Occupied Geometries” section was probably my favorite, featuring artists like Lygia Clark, Ana Mendieta, and Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, along with Neto. The text links different conceptions of a square, from a physical space to be occupied (recalling various recent protests happening in city squares) to a purely aesthetic form. The works are linked thematically if not visually, with Neto’s soft sculpture dominating the middle of the space and various media displayed along the walls.

magdalenafernandez-1pm00araararauna2006Magdalena Fernández: 1pm00 ‘Ara Ararauna’, 2006.

anamendieta-butterfly1975Ana Mendieta: Butterfly, 1975.

rafaellozano-hemmer-shadowboxthirdperson2006Rafael Lozano-Hemmer: Shadow Box: Third Person, 2006.

I loved the video pieces especially. Magdalena Fernández’s 1pm00 ‘Ara Ararauna’ is this great kinetic digital painting, presenting a seemingly still image of a minimalist composition whose lines jump at the sound of an unseen macaw who squawks periodically on the audio track, and thus synthesizing a traditional, recognizable painting form with an element of the artist’s home of Venezuela. Mendieta’s Butterfly is a subtle reflection on her early childhood in Cuba, before she was “rescued” by the United States and sent to be raised in Iowa. This video self-portrait echoes a photograph of the artist dressed as a butterfly when she was 5. The extreme distortion and vibrant color changes comment on her own displacement and shifts between cultures. Lozano-Hemmer’s interactive video piece places the viewer within the screen, but their figures become silhouettes made up of random words, reminiscent of a blog tag cluster. We can accept it as randomized or attempt to puzzle out how these words might connect to our own bodies and personalities, and of course it raises questions about surveillance in the modern world.

cildomeireles-3rdunladderseries2002Cildo Meireles: 3rd Un-Ladder series, 2002.

annamariamaiolino-untitled1997Anna Maria Maiolino: Untitled, 1997.

danielmedina-orangefence2012Daniel Medina: Orange Fence, 2012.

permissiontobeglobal-galleryviewInstallation view, including works by José Carlos Martinat (window) and Mathias Goeritz (left).

Adjacent galleries show off more conceptual works, with Cildo Meireles’s unclimbable ladder to nowhere and Anna Maria Maiolino’s flat cement sculptures with empty holes to suggest absence. Venezuelan artist Daniel Medina’s Orange Fence merges elements of painting and sculpture, with a composition tinged with Op Art effect. Its three-dimensional metal bars reference home security fences built in crime-ridden urban areas. A compelling video by Miguel Ángel Ríos features an array of large grey spinning tops, which when played in a game are pushed against each other in battle, but here are shown in reverse so that they rise back up and separate. As Globe critic Sebastian Smee notes, this half of the show is stronger on the whole. There’s a great combination of twisted takes on Minimalism, cheeky sociopolitical references, and abstract experimentation, all blended together well within three galleries.

martaminujin-carlodgardeloffireofcotton1981-2009Marta Minujín: Carlos Gardel of Fire, of Cotton, 1981.

eugeniodittborn-neotransandairmailpaintingno41-1985Eugenio Dittborn: Neo Transand Airmail Painting, No. 41, 1985.

The second half of the exhibit is more focused on political and social commentary, with some great pieces but also some less impressive ones. I was so happy to see Marta Minujín represented, since she’s another new favorite whose work I haven’t seen in real life. Her group performance Carlos Gardel of Fire, of Cotton in 1981 featured a huge cotton effigy of iconic Argentinean singer Carlos Gardel, who died in a plane crash in 1935. The action (which included participants dancing the tango) was captured in photographs, showing the figure being set aflame at night. I was also excited to see mail art represented- a genre I haven’t really found in major museum exhibitions- with one of Chilean artist Eugenio Dittborn’s mailed paintings. These works were done on paper, folded up, and sent through the mail as a way to avoid censorship and share news and responses to the horrific violence perpetrated under dictators like Augusto Pinochet.

oscarmunoz-sedimentations2011Oscar Muñoz: Sedimentaciones, 2011.

For me, the most moving work in this area was Oscar Muñoz’s innovative video installation, a selection from the work Sedimentations. Situated within a small, darkened room, a video is projected downward onto the surface of a long table. The footage shows a grouping of portrait photographs lying next to two large sinks. Hands appear to pick up the photos and wash away the images in the sink, and at other points blank photo paper is developed. This is a pointed and chilling reference to the “Disappeared“- political targets secretly taken by military/government leaders in many South American countries, most notably Argentina as well as the artist’s home country of Colombia.

gallery view2Installation view, including José Damesceno’s During the Vertical Walk, 2005.

renefrancisco-eduardoponjuan-productivism1992René Francisco and Eduardo Ponjuan: Productivism, 1992.

Other works were too obvious or uninspired for me to find them effective. René Francisco and Eduardo Ponjuan’s collaborative Productivism depicts a male worker painted in the style of Socialist Realism, but holding a large, three-dimensional paintbrush instead of a typical tool. It’s not that I’m against the message of uniting worker and artist, and fighting political corruption with culture, it’s just too on the nose. And I’ve seen Socialist Realism subverted in more interesting ways, as in the work of Wang Guangyi. Regina José Galindo’s hour-long video, Who Can Erase the Traces?, shows her slowly walking to the national palace in Guatemala City, periodically stopping to dip her feet in a basin of human blood. The work was made in protest of former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt’s bid for president in 2003, and while the content is powerful, it feels almost dated in its imagery, recalling a visual language seen more in political works of the 60s and 70s than something made today.

marisol-sunbathersMarisol: The Sun Bathers (detail), 1967.

lilianaporter-untitledshadows2014Liliana Porter: Untitled (Shadows), 1969/2014.

Permission to be Global/Prácticas Globales is one of the best shows I’ve seen at the MFA, largely because most of these artists are not regularly represented at large museums. It was honestly so exciting for me to see these works, plus I was introduced to some new artists in the process. This is the kind of exhibit that has stuck with me since seeing it a few weeks ago, an effect physically realized by the extra works on view outside the gallery space. On the way in, I stopped by Marisol’s The Sun Bathers, a humorous representation of figures sunning themselves with large foil reflectors. As I exited I noticed the new mural along the theater wall, a version of Liliana Porter’s Untitled (Shadows) commissioned just for this exhibition. The artist painted shadow-like silhouettes of people from the MFA community, realistic enough that at first glance I didn’t realize what I was seeing. As I walked beside the wall my own, real shadow was added to the mix, creating a level of interactivity for me to ponder while I made my way to the shop to visit a friend. All in all truly excellent museum outing.

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.