Beauty of nature’s depictions
Words LEAH GALLANT
Photography NOLIS ANDERSON
Nick Cave rose to prominence in the late 90s for his series of Soundsuits, the towering, wearable sculptures that conceal the wearer under a dazzling range of materials: doilies, technicolor hair, masses of mother-of-pearl buttons. The series’ origins has acquired its own sense of art historical mythos. In 1991, after viewing the widely-circulated footage of the police beating of Rodney King, Cave crossed the street from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he is still a professor today, and began gathering sticks from Chicago’s Grant Park. He gradually transformed them into that first rustling, pelt-like object. Since then, he has made over 500 Soundsuits, from materials as diverse as crocheted squares, vintage globes, and gramophone horns. A wicker basket might serve as a concave face, or a mass of sock monkeys as a bulbous coat. These suits are like costumes for a ritual that does not yet exist.
The artist’s first major retrospective, “Nick Cave: Forothermore,” opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (MCA) last spring, before traveling to the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Composed of more than three decades of Cave’s work, the exhibition demonstrated his long commitment to using craft as a tool for social justice and his inexhaustible sense of material alchemy. Cave’s particular sensibility for the organic threads through his work, in the form of sculptural tree limbs, filigree birds, and beaded flowers. Under Cave’s omnivorous hand, familiar objects enter into the space of the fantastic. Inflatable lawn ornaments are stitched together into a floating mass of Santas and garish spiders. A wall is veiled by a dense net of millions of beads threaded onto shoelaces, or an assemblage of found objects recontextualizes a racist knickknack. Ever-expanding, too, is the list of varied spaces, with an ever-growing cast of collaborators, where he has presented his work. From a highway overpass in Detroit, to a street parade in Boston, to his recent foray into mosaics in New York’s 42nd St. subway station, Cave’s work demonstrates that museums are just one of many possible places where art can be.
We caught up with Cave to talk about Chicago’s culture of artist-run spaces, his daily practice of sitting in silence, and the art world’s reckoning with racial justice.
Leah Gallant: First of all, congratulations on your monumental exhibition, “Forothermore.” What has kept you grounded during this busy time?
Nick Cave: What has kept me grounded, and I think what has always kept me grounded, is that I’m a messenger, so what I do has never been for me. It’s always been for others, for the community at large.
People don’t realize that being an artist and having a studio practice is one thing, but the curation, the selection, the show is a whole other artwork in itself. I was just excited about bringing this work together in a space to be introduced back. There was work that I hadn’t seen in, like, three and a half decades.
All of this was important for me to realize the emotional agency that the work holds, that the work demands. When I was going through that show – you know, we’d go back many times – it settled me. It prepared me for this different type of openness that I had to provide space for because, for me, the show is very heavy. But there is also this sense of feeling safe in a space that was really struggling with conflict, brutality, repression, and despair. And yet, through all of that, for me as a human being, I have to somehow figure out and create space for forgiveness in order for me to accept what has happened and what continues to happen.
I realized that art has always been this savior for me. It is what I have always turned to to work it out, to work through it. And in saying that, I know that I have become that voice for so many others. And yet, there is this journey that I want to take us all on collectively.
LG: Can you tell me a bit about what role creativity played for you growing up?
NC: As a kid, I was so fortunate to grow up in a household where creativity was never hindered or shunned. My mother just allowed it to happen, my father just allowed it to happen. If I felt like the horse was to be purple, that was OK.
I was one of seven boys, and my mother was assessing all of us at any given time. If she found any of us settled, content by doing something, she was like, “He’s good. Let me sort of focus…”. And so I was always drawing and making stuff, so she just knew that I was settled. The family gets together, you walk in the door, and everyone always hugs, everyone always kisses, period. You never brought drama into the house.
I also grew up around creating from having nothing and yet having everything. I was in secondhand stores at the age of twelve – think about it, seven boys, my mother is not about to buy clothing for everyone. It’s all handed down. That was the beginning of me taking things apart and rebuilding them.
It’s interesting when I think about moments when creativity really started. I’m surrounded by uncles that are painters and family members that are woodworkers, quilters, and seamstresses. I would watch my aunt make an outfit to wear out that evening. It was all magical to me – that you can take this fabric and make something wearable. And I was part of the high school art league, entering competitions at seventeen, with my mother walking us through if you don’t win first prize and coaching us about what all that means.
And in talent shows, we did all this stuff in school, with friends, and creating these collaborative moments that we weren’t thinking about in terms of collaboration, we were just thinking about it as a way of coming together and making things happen.
<Read the full interview from Issue Six>