Nick Cave’s self proclaimed role as a messenger is amply evident from his exhibition titled Made By Whites For Whites at the Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. In a recent conversation at the gallery with Denise Markonish, the curator of MASS MoCA that will host his large scale solo exhibition in 2016, Cave spoke of his social responsibility as an artist that marks a new direction and departure from his lavish, well-known Soundsuits.
Triggered by a container from the flea market fashioned to resemble a Black person’s head and labeled “spittoon,” Cave began to collect and investigate objects found in different parts of the USA that perpetuated racism long after Abolition in 1865. The series of works on display take on this lofty subject matter, that continues to plague society today, through Cave’s quintessential ability to combine playful and serious, kitsch and cerebral art while maintaining a fine balance between the two.
While the politics of representation and the significance of hiding Black identity are cloaked in the large faceless mannequins of Cave’s previous sculptures, the small iconic Black figures in the current exhibition confront racism head on. Scale and identity become important points of departure between Cave’s earlier performative Soundsuits often sized to his own body, and the diminutive static minstrel figures that deliver a tough message.
In Fear Not, Therefore (2014) and Gone Fishin (2014) mass made statues of young Black boys – one who purportedly froze to death while holding a lantern for George Washington, and the other of a hapless chalk figure with a pipe protruding from his mouth – showcase how these cartoonish, pitch black, red lipped figures with bulging eyes kept the myth of the ostracised other alive. Similarly, End Upheld (2014) presents an elaborately carved black man crouching in subservience at the base of a piano stool straining to hold the weight of the person he supports.
Cave’s use of collected memorabilia is an eye opener in the discourse of objects that further denigrated the perception and treatment of people of African descent. By reusing these highly charged found materials, whether it is a carnival artifact, titled Sacrifice (2014) in the shape of an African head, or a golliwog named King of the Hill (2014) whose scary black mask like face appeared in British, European and American story books, Cave contributes to the ongoing process of reassessing and undoing a long history of injustice.
Yet placed on simple bar stools, these small seemingly inconsequential figures are enshrined in elaborate arbors made of birds, flowers, chandeliers and kitschy decorative items festooned with beaded strings. By consecrating the statues with mass produced tawdry objects, Cave introduces a playful element that balances the heavy handedness of his message. Similarly, by placing the golliwog in King of the Hill above a stack of hand crocheted quilts, Cave gets his comeuppance by making the audience look up to the villain. In Star Power (2014), an installation piece concerned with the Black Power movement of the 1960s and 1970s, Cave combines the iconography of the clenched fist with words from Martin Luther Jr. and the golden net of a badminton set, to find the threshold between seriousness and humour, high and low art forms.
Never shying away from his interest in aesthetics, a trademark of his work, Cave’s sculptures – regardless of whether they felicitate loyal dogs in his less potent, accompanying show titled Rescue, on view at Shainman’s second gallery – make an equally strident presence for their enormous visual appeal.
Nick Cave: Made by Whites for Whites, until 11 October, Jack Shainman Gallery, 513 West 20th Street, New York, NY 10011.
1. Nick Cave, Star Power, 2014, mixed media including wooden fist, vintage stools, and star quilt 84 1/4 x 88 5/8 x 1 7/8 inches © Nick Cave, Photo by James Prinz Photography, Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.