Museum  December 20, 2022  Howard Halle

Nick Cave's Forothermore

Photo: Ariel Ione Williams. © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York

Installation view, Nick Cave: Forothermore, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, November 18, 2022–April 10, 2023.

If your tastes in art run toward the intricately detailed, you’ll find a lot to like in the Guggenheim’s retrospective of Nick Cave, an artist whose sculptures and reliefs are forested with trinkets, beads, figurines, and other bric-a-brac reclaimed from life’s lost and found. Cave’s work comprises extravagant accumulations of stuff, inviting the eye to rummage around and discover connections between things and their meaning. 

Cave lives and works in Chicago, and like another artist based there—Theaster Gates—he employs his harvest of the cast-off and unloved to excavate the history and collective memory of African Americans. Also, like Gates, Cave wears multiple hats: He’s a fashion designer and performance artist, as well activist and educator. But the comparisons end there, because Cave’s efforts are ornate and even baroque, reveling in a kind of jubilancy that meets the pain of racism with defiant celebration.

© Nick Cave. Photo: Midge Wattles. © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York

Nick Cave, Arm Peace, 2019. Bronze and found metal objects, 85 × 39 × 12 in. Courtesy the artist.

Originally mounted at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, the exhibition is spread throughout the Guggenheim’s tower galleries. It’s divided into sections titled “What It Was,” “What It Is,” and “What It Shall Be,” reflecting the themes that have informed Cave’s career. The show itself is called Forothermore with “other” being the operative word, since Cave is both Black and queer, a combination that can spell double trouble in America. 

Emerging in the late 1990s, Cave was influenced by music, especially the Afro-psychedelic sound and outré stage spectacles of George Clinton and his legendary funk ensemble, Parliament-Funkadelic, as well as the thrumming beats and Dionysian atmosphere of dance clubs. He also found inspiration in the Bauhaus’s ethos of blending art, design, and theater. Indeed, the echoes of Oskar Schlemmer’s costumes for Triadic Ballet (1922) resonate noticeably in Cave’s signature “Sound Suits,” which serve as both standalone pieces and performance attire.

Photo: Ariel Ione Williams. © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York

Installation view, Nick Cave: Forothermore, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, November 18, 2022–April 10, 2023.

Cave grew up in a frugal household, which informs the incessant recycling that underlies his complex assemblages. Bit by salvaged bit, Cave builds powerful narratives that recall the struggles of Black lives like his family’s, and their strategies for survival.

In Sea Sick (2014), Cave harkens back to the infamous Middle Passage that transported slaves to these shores. Here, the artist brings together an array of kitschy reproductions, depicting 19th-century schooners plowing resolutely through the ocean. Set amongst them on a shelf are two bookends formed as hands pressing on either side of a vintage cookie jar shaped like the caricature of a Black man’s head, complete with stereotypically plump red lips and bright white teeth breaking out in an idiotic smile—one of many such collectibles that became popular among Whites, both North and South, from Jim Crow through the Civil Rights era. Its eyes have also been painted out, a gesture which, along with the bookends, transforms a denigrating grin into an anguished scream worthy of Munch.

Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. © Nick Cave. Photo: Midge Wattles. © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York

Nick Cave, Hustle Coat, 2021. Bronze, found textiles, and found metal objects, 59 × 41 × 16 in. (149.9 × 104.1 × 40.6 cm). Presented on Wallwork (designed in collaboration with Bob Faust), 2022.

Male heads in the form of Africanized wooden carvings make appearances in several pieces. One presents a hundred or so piled on a table along with a large eagle looming over them in a manner that seems threatening, but also bizarrely nurturing as the heads are clustered together like eggs in a nest—a reference perhaps to the way slaves were effectively bred to ensure the cotton field yields a steady supply.

Cave, however, employs other motifs to signify the audacity of hope in the face of inequality and oppression. Among these are arms terminating in Black Power fists, and hands linked in long chains of solidarity from floor to ceiling. Other elements put to prodigious use are flowers made in lacquered metal, and ceramic birds, which often peek out from faux blossoms arranged as garlands, bouquets, and panels cascading down the walls like tapestries.  

Photo: Midge Wattles. © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York

Installation view, Nick Cave: Forothermore, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, November 18, 2022–April 10, 2023.

Elsewhere, Cave lines the interior of a trench coat with watches and other jewelry, evoking the street-corner hustlers who peddled counterfeit or stolen merchandise. Resembling a kind of scarecrow made of bling, it recalls the do-what-it-takes entrepreneurship required to get by in the absence of economic opportunity.

Cave, though, remains best known for his “Sound Suits,” which he originally conceived in the aftermath of the Rodney King beating that sparked the 1992 Los Angeles riots. The first were made of twigs sewn together which rustled when worn (hence the name). Cave went on to fashion them in evermore complicated configurations, using beads, buttons, shoelaces, toys, and even antiques. The artist sees them as a combination of protective armor, a sign of otherness, and a vehicle for protest. A large group of the Suits is organized here in a processional that seems to be forever marching forward: A reminder that while countless Black bodies have been broken throughout American history, the Black spirit persists.    

About the Author

Howard Halle

Howard Halle is a writer and artist who has exhibited his work in the United States and Europe. Between 1981 and 1985, he was Curator of The Kitchen's Gallery and Performance Art series. From 1995 through 2020, he was Chief Art Critic for Time Out New York. He lives and works in Brooklyn.

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