What can be done with what we throw away

Nick Cave’s work journeys through our own kitschy past

All images courtesy Nick Cave/Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

Nick Cave can take a garish ceramic bird, and a kitschy ceramic fruit bowl, and a few strings of plastic beads, and put it all together in a way that makes a stunning, and beautiful, sculpture. There’s no breaking that equation down to make the math work on how ugly adds up to entrancing, but read the answer to the equation and it’s a valuable comment on the often overlooked kitsch in our lives.

From a distance, the draped lines of beads and the conglomeration of ceramic figurines takes on an unexpected symmetry. As a whole, the pieces have a unified feel that breaks down as you get closer, and each individual bird face and fruit rind and bead emerges. The pieces are carefully controlled chaos, it seems — artfully composed and meticulously assembled to make a meditation on the detritus of our lives. The knickknacks, the discarded clothes, the spare buttons.

Cave, who lives in Chicago but has exhibited in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York City and Verona, Italy, visits thrift stores and flea markets wherever he goes. His art begins with objects he finds there.

“It’s always an object that sort of provokes the beginning of an idea — I don’t sketch anything,” Cave says. “It’s really just through an object that provides me this sort of impulse or sensation of multiple ways in which I perhaps could read into it.”

Cave takes what other people have discarded — the three-foot-tall, buck-toothed, glittered-egg-bearing Easter bunnies and the unwanted sweaters, the sock monkeys and the doilies, and turns them into “soundsuits.”

The first room in his Denver Art Museum exhibition, Sojourn, greets viewers with a row of predominantly white suits, an aisle to walk along. Their surfaces are entirely covered in buttons.

“This entire room is based around working with the button as a source of material, as a source of application, as an embellishment, as a way of adorning the body,” he says. “So that’s,” he laughs, “what’s happening here.”

The soundsuits in that room and a later room in the exhibition are poised at the ready. They look as though they might move. And on June 28, they will. Cave, a former Alvin Ailey modern dancer, is choreographing a performance in which the soundsuits will be brought to life. During Untitled #58 (Getup), Cave’s soundsuits will take over the museum — animated by dancers from three local companies, joined by a music improv group, a DJ, video elements, 15 community participants and Cave himself.

Sojourn, 2012

Want a taste? Check the video installation in the back of the current show. Performers on pogo sticks bring furred soundsuits to pulsating life. Black raffia suits ripple. The human forms are just alluded to, just hinted at, but the kinship is recognizable, and suddenly, the viewer’s relationship with what looks like a hot-pink, head-banging jellyfish is redefined.

That, really, is the heart of what Cave is doing, but he plays along with lines that explore what can be done with what we throw away.

The invitation, Denver Art Museum Curator of Contemporary Art William Morrow says, is for the viewer to come on a journey to a different world. The experience is shared and the art immersive. It’s also easily translatable.

“You don’t have to know anything about contemporary art or art history to really appreciate the craft and the technical beauty of all of the objects in this exhibition,” Morrow says.

Except for the 16-foot circular wall hanging — a tondo — called “Constellation,” made from sequined garments cut up and sewn back together in a pattern Cave says reminded him of the sky at his family farm, all of the pieces are original to the Denver Art Museum exhibition.

The “Rescues” collection is Cave’s newest concept. While thrifting, a friend directed his attention to a sculpture of a poodle. It didn’t initially strike him, but he took it anyway, then found a second dog, a Doberman, and found that dog a gold couch (in an incident at the next thrift store that started with him asking a befuddled sales associate, “Can I bring my dog to sit on the sofa?”) on which to be seated and surrounded in a halo of porcelain figurines and other bric-a-brac.

Nick Cave

“I think, to me, I’m sort of bringing a closure to or a departure from the soundsuits and sort of looking at other ways of thinking and making, and the most important thing in that process is, what is the essence?” Cave says. “How do I transfer the essence of my work into this new way of thinking and making? I wanted to maintain this sort of found object point of reference, inspiration, and yet I wanted to also sort of open up a new sort of vocabulary around another form of symbolism and commitment around an object, such as here, the dog.”

In this case, he’s considering the symbolism of dogs in 19th century paintings — one of loyalty, protection and guardianship. He’s gone on to create haloed thrones for six sculptures of dogs, and one of a monkey.

“I find that a lot of my work now really is, I’m making it right on the spot,” Cave says. “The foundation of this is happening right there.”

Cave also made a 24-foot triptych for the Denver Art Museum, taking the concepts of repurposed items — interworking figurines and strings of beads and crystals, metal lawn ornaments and afghans as backdrops for it all — and bringing it out of orbit and onto a flat surface. He describes the results as deliberately gauche and verging on baroque.

“It very much is a commentary on our time,” Morrow says. “It’s relevant in terms of contemporary art and what other artists outside of the art world are looking at — this opulence of contemporary culture. What is that about, this idea that we have to have more, more, more. And Nick is sort of shoving that in our face a little bit and making us question these things. I think that’s what great art does, it creates this dialogue.”

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com

Untitled #58 (Getup) at 6 p.m. on June 28 will see Cave’s soundsuits come to life in an evening performance. The “Untitled” multimedia events are the final Friday of each month at the Denver Art Museum, 100 W. 14th Ave. Pkwy., Denver. Nick Cave’s Sojourn is on view through Sept. 22. Visit www.denverartmuseum.org for more information.


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