Nick Cave seems to be bracing for a coming storm.
When asked about the upcoming election in his country, and specifically the spectre of enduring four more years under President Donald Trump, the artist pulls no punches. There’s an urgency. There will be lots of work to do before and after the election of 2020.
“Honey … I’m scared,” says the Chicago-based Cave with a rueful laugh, who was in Calgary last week to set up his new exhibit, Nick Cave: Feat, at the Glenbow Museum.
For an artist whose work is often considered inherently political, it’s hardly surprising Cave would see the strange and unsettling political atmosphere in his country worth commenting on through his work. But it goes beyond commentary. Art can play a big role in not only addressing but calming the political anxiety that has gripped his country, even if only through escape, he says. A gay African-American artist who began creating his soundsuit series in the 1990s, Cave’s early work in figurative sculpture was in direct response to the vicious 1991 Rodney King beating by police in Los Angeles. It was a powder keg incident that revealed still-simmering racial and class divisions in the U.S. and led to widespread rioting in the city after most of the officers involved were acquitted in 1992.
Some of the imaginative suits were used for performances while others were sculptural and meant solely for exhibition. Cave has made hundreds of them over the past couple decades. But the overarching idea remains: to “hide gender, race and class.” It’s a message that seems to have become all the more timely in the past three years.
“I’m trying to put projects in place for 2020 so we have places to go so we can release our emotions and collectively come together,” says Cave. “I’m interested in ways of using the work as a way of unifying and bringing us together as opposed to separating us.”
While there were none planned for Calgary, Cave has a habit of creating performances in various cities, where he recruits local performers to don the suits and engage in cheerfully noisy pop-up performances.
Last summer, Cave presented two such shows simultaneously at the Park Avenue Armoury in New York. According to the New York Times, The Up Right was a “a costumed performance backed by a choir, that deals with police brutality, gun violence, racial inequality and identity” and moved audience members to tears. The Let Go, on the other hand, was a raucous dance party where audience members were encouraged to abandon all inhibitions and take part in “Soul Train” lines, giant games of Twister and line dancing.
“At the end of the day with the work, the underlying is very dark,” Cave says. “But yet there is a sense of optimism and beauty built within it. We have to find ways to balance ourselves.”
It has helped turn Cave into a “rock star of the art world” — a frequent description of the artist that often seems used to distinguish him from that other Nick Cave, the Australian musician and more traditional rock star.
Still, Cave is a high-profile figure in modern art. And while he has exhibited pieces in National Gallery of Canada’s 2017 Biennial, the Glenbow exhibit is Cave’s first solo show in this country. He says he doesn’t believe the work loses any of its potency when removed from the U.S. While that initial, harrowing inspiration for soundsuits was fairly specific, the messaging is not.
“It doesn’t change. I think there are ‘isms in every country,” Cave says. “We can shift the conversation to what fits the location or where we are exhibiting the work, but I don’t think it really changes anything in terms of continuing to have a space to have these difficult conversations.”
At first glance, Cave’s work doesn’t immediately jump out as being dark or difficult. The soundsuits, in particular, are explosions of colour and texture that feature found objects adorning elaborate costumes built onto mannequins. On one, a devil mask with horns sits atop a figure covered with old toys, globes and noisemakers. Another has a giant ceramic bunny as a head. On yet another, a body is covered from head to toe in cut-up, balled-up sweaters — or “sweater bones” as Cave calls them — with sock monkeys placed throughout. It’s a good example of the duelling tones Cave can achieve. It’s playful and funny, but there is also something slightly distressing about all those overwhelmed sock monkeys drowning in a sea of “sweater bones.”
“It’s sort of disturbing,” the artist acknowledges with a laugh.
“… that’s the sort of whimsical and sort of strange twists that I’m interested in applying into the work.”
While Cave may be best known for his soundsuits, the Glenbow exhibit offers an overview of various mixed-media sculptures he works in.
One of the most powerful, and perhaps the most directly political, is a 2014 piece that had the artist casting his own arm in bronze. It’s reaching out from a wall, placed next to stacks of white towels that are positioned to look like rings on a tree. It’s a reference to the generations of black people who have been reduced to roles of serving whites.
According to the Glenbow description accompanying the sculpture, that includes the artist’s own grandmother. In the sprawling, large-scale installation Architectural Forest, beads and bamboo mix with fluorescent lights and colour filter gels for a psychedelic fairy-tale forest that spectators can immerse themselves in. In one of his newest pieces, 2019’s Hustle Coat, a trench coat is busily adorned with jewelry and watches. From afar it almost looks like a shiny religious robe. Get closer and it invokes street hustlers selling stolen goods out of a trench coat, figures that Cave says he recalls from his childhood in Missouri.
In fact, a quick glance of the exhibit as a whole — enchanted forests, antique toys, sock monkeys, ceramic bunnies and dogs — might suggest that Cave is preoccupied with images of childhood. But the artist says it’s not something he thinks about, other than it being part of the “DNA” of the pieces he creates.
He points to the soundsuit with the horned mask covered in old toys, a piece that sparks imagination and creativity and invites viewers to create their own narrative.
“I was thinking one day, this is how my mind is,” he says. “It’s just ideas spinning around. So this is really about ideas that are circulating around my head and dominating the physical self. It really is about using that energy and putting it out in that form.”
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019