I witnessed at least a handful of passerby pause in front of the glass-front façade of the Jones Center in downtown Austin, Texas. They shuffled through pockets and bags to find their iPhones, quizzically documenting the two unusual objects on view. How much contemporary art stops people dead in their tracks, not to scoff and mutter “well, I could do that,” but rather to ponder “how did he think to do that?” or perhaps, more importantly, “why?”
The two works positioned at the front of the space are Soundsuits by the Chicago-based artist Nick Cave, part of his current exhibition Nick Cave: Hiding in Plain Sight at the Austin Museum of Art. The first work, an impeccably crafted pair of pants and shirt made from thousands of white buttons extends into a hood abutting a bristly, masked face. It is placed in dialogue with a faceless, looming creature crafted entirely from twigs, its feet and arms the only obvious allusion to the human form.
Cave’s soundsuits operate as fantastical guises that evade art-world categorization, straddling the divide between fashion, sculpture and performance. While mesmerizing works of art, his soundsuits also address difficult issues surrounding identity. They were conceptually born in the early 1990s as Cave struggled to come to grips with his position as a black man in society following the infamous Rodney King beating. He explains, “I started thinking about myself more and more as a black man — as someone who was discarded, devalued, viewed as less than.” Amalgams of texture, volume and color, soundsuits are painstakingly executed with found materials – like rugs, toys and sequined garments – discovered at thrift stores and flea markets. These unusual materials are utilized in the reinterpretation of diverse costume traditions past and past, melding elements of craft and fine art.
- Installation image of “Drive By” (2011). “Nick Cave: Hiding in Plain Sight at the Jones Center,” AMOA-Arthouse, September 28–December 30, 2012. Courtesy of AMOA-Arthouse, Photos by Eric Nix.
As I had never seen any of Cave’s video pieces before, so I excitedly welcomed the opportunity to view this facet of his practice. It is through these video pieces that the significance of his history as a dancer with the famed Alvin Ailey Dance Company in New York becomes explicitly palpable. Aesthetic works of art are activated in these videos, where dancers – both trained and amateur – don Cave’s elaborate soundsuits and demonstrate the visual and auditory spectrum achievable when these pieces are in motion. In Drive By (2011), dancers in various ensembles move in and out of the stark white frame, sometimes digitally multiplying, other times joined by additional characters. The aestheticizing quality of Drive By is in contrast to the earlier Clowning (2004), in which a series of brightly-clad, carnivalesque characters descend upon a Chicago street fair. People on the street readily engage with these whimsical figures, highlighting Cave’s concern with accessibility – in terms not only of the work itself, but its placement within the public sphere.
The most recent piece in the exhibition is the 8-foot tall, wall-mounted object, an elaborately constructed net of detritus. As the museum’s security guard smartly remarked, Untitled (2012) echoes Jackson Pollock’s all-over paintings, skeins of threads and twigs weaving chaotically through the metal frame. The tongue-in-cheek sensibility intrinsic to Cave’s soundsuits is apparent here too; cheesy porcelain bird figurines perch precariously throughout the piece with a single white cat positioned in the lower corner, peering upward.
Though a small exhibition, Nick Cave: Hiding in Plain Sight provides an excellent vignette of the artist’s practice, highlighting the intriguing relationships that can develop from a truly multidisciplinary approach. The exhibition is on view through December 30 at the Austin Museum of Art-Arthouse.