By Sherry Lucas
A dazzling swirl of colors, patterns and textures wrap the entrance of the Nick Cave: Feat. exhibition at the Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson, Mississippi, through February 16, 2020. As if that weren’t invitation enough, the word “Feat” greets in big, mirrored letters. “Come see yourself inside,” it seems to beckon.
There is plenty to connect with there, in the sculptures, video, assemblages and installations by the Chicago-based contemporary artist, and in the materials and craft objects Cave uses (and often recycles) to create them. Doilies, vintage toys, beads, baskets, buttons, ceramic figurines and more find new life, new meaning and new service in his art. They offer an intriguing way in for viewers, piquing memory and forging kinship that can lead to deeper truths.
Cave, recently picked by The New York Times Magazine as one of “The Greats” for his artistic mastery and cultural impact, is a messenger and teacher, too — “an artist with a civic responsibility,” as he said at the exhibition opening in late October. He’s a catalyst, creating works that pull people together to talk about difficult issues, with optimism and hope.
Nick Cave: Feat. was organized by the Frist Art Museum in Nashville in 2017. Jackson is the traveling exhibition’s final stop. Cave’s artworks, and his partner Bob Faust’s colorful wall works at the start and inside, turn the galleries into a seductive lure that will delight, challenge and engage.
The collection of 17 works opens with a stunning runway of 10 of Cave’s famous Soundsuits (named for the rustling noise made when they move, a metaphor for defiance). Blending fashion and sculpture, the often wearable, human-shaped suits began as his response to the 1992 beating of black motorist Rodney King by white Los Angeles police officers and their subsequent acquittal. The artist’s thoughts of identity as a black man — as someone devalued and viewed as “less than” — channeled their way into the art. Fears and frustrations stoked by racial profiling, injustices, hate crimes and violence find visually vocal resistance in these works. The full-body suits obscure race, gender, class and identity, forming a no-judgment “armor” like no other. They also explode with the expression and exuberance of ceremonial attire.
Button Walls surround the gallery in black fabric and thousands of white and clear buttons, creating a sensory cocoon to contemplate the eye-popping soundsuits. The whisper of a rustle (actually, a video in the next room) is lulling enough to suggest waves on a beach, with the walls akin to a starry night sky. All is conducive to a closer, longer look at these elaborate sculptures — at the sock monkeys that find a home on one and the vintage toys and globes that seem to orbit another. Some elevate and celebrate the unsung, often feminine labor behind crochet, knitting and appliqué crafts. A striking button-covered soundsuit with a gramophone headpiece holds a dark, dignified spot at one end, its swirl of thin wire in blue and black hues calling to mind police colors and a muffling of voices.
In the next gallery, the video Blot begs a longer look as well (with a bench for just that purpose), as a figure in a black raffia soundsuit moves against a stark white background. The rustling sounds turn hypnotic as the performer dances, continually shifting shape — evolving, emerging and collapsing in the video’s mesmerizing, mirrored effect. Watch it as a constantly changing ink blot on a Rorschach test, interpreting fleeting images as a haystack, totem, ghoul, female silhouette, eagle, geyser and lots more.
An untitled work on a nearby wall, of a cast bronze arm and hand reaching from underneath many pressed, stacked and snow-white hand towels, is striking in another way. It resonates with burden and with dignity, referencing the weight of years of black servitude to whites, and the strength of endurance. See the echo of tree rings in the lines of folds, and perhaps that of an angel’s wing in its upswept tulip shape.
In Wall Relief, huge, densely assembled panels chock-full of ceramic birds, metal flowers, gramophones, strung crystals and afghans carry the recycled remnants of past generations into contemporary circles. The scraps and treasures from past lives still hold the power to trigger memory and nudge nostalgia on an individual scale. Together, they evoke wonder at the amassed effect and spectacle.
Tucked around a corner and hanging amid a swirling pattern of purple and black, Hustle Coat offers a trench coat, hanging open to reveal a shiny horde of watches, chains and costume jewelry. There’s reference to illegal street salesmen and their wearable inventory of stolen items and knock-offs, but the surreal setting in the background and the bright, enticing gleam of the goods might also read as a cautionary tale, and a homage to the fashion.
Architectural Forest, a monumental installation that fills an entire gallery, is a wow-worthy way to wrap the show — a feat in itself with colored beads and psychedelically patterned strands of bamboo suspended from the ceiling and a bright outline visually anchoring it on the floor. Walk around the work and gaze deeply to see the patterns that shimmer into recognition.
“Imagine That,” a headline on the wall suggests, with four journals for viewers’ thoughts and prompts to explore the work in different ways. The penciled words of one are directed at Architectural Forest but seem to catch the gist of Nick Cave: Feat. as a whole. “Soooo cool!”
Sherry Lucas is a Mississippi native and long-time feature writer covering arts and culture in Jackson.