A positivity and an energy exudes from things made by hand. When that energy is directed to make objects that address important social issues, people often turn away, because it's easier to avoid grappling with anything potentially difficult.
What do you do when an artist has created work that is so visually engaging that you not only can’t look away, you find yourself drawn into the energy and aesthetic of the maker and therefore into a much broader conversation?
"Nick Cave: Feat.," on view at the Akron Art Museum, is a triumph of the visual, as well as a way to dream about the future and many of the social issues that shape our country in a positive and encouraging way.
Cave is the Stephanie and Bill Sick Professor of Fashion, Body, and Garment at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. This exhibition highlights 10 years of his work in a wide range of mediums, including sculpture, installation, video and performance.
“Cave wants his art to spark viewers’ imaginations and aspirations.” This is written on the wall text that introduces the exhibit as you walk in. The artist succeeds through his own ability to use form, color and found objects to create a doorway for people to engage with his work on an aesthetic level. Once you are engaged and start to look deeper, you understand that the pieces all address issues of social justice and identity including race, gun violence and civic responsibility.
One "Untitled" mixed media piece includes Cave’s own arm cast in bronze and cloth hand towels. According to the text, the piece “speaks to the position of servitude that many African Americans have been forced to endure throughout history. The stack of neatly pressed white towels … suggests the crushing number of years that black people, including the artist’s grandmother, have devoted to being in service to whites.”
While this piece engages important issues that are deeply felt by the artist, it is also a wonderful study in form and the power of color in art. The white towels take on an organic, almost botanical shape when stacked high, and the contrast of the bronze arm creates a visual tension that speaks to the deeper meaning.
"Wall Relief" includes ceramic birds, metal flowers, afghans, strung crystals and a gramophone. It’s a large work, more than 8 feet wide by 6 feet tall, and extends out from the wall about 2 feet. Cave found the objects for this piece, as he does with many of his works, in flea markets and thrift stores and then assembled them onto a metal structure.
The individual pieces and parts remind him of things “collected and treasured by his grandparents.” Cave’s ability to elevate objects that are so familiar to many of us, with so much shared memory and meaning, is part of why his work is so powerful. It’s a skill he is able to carry through everything he creates, regardless of chosen medium, form or subject matter.
Cave is best known for his Soundsuits, which are slightly larger-than-life human-shaped sculptures. They are called Soundsuits because of the noise they make when they move. Cave started making these pieces in response to the beating of Rodney King by policemen in Los Angeles more than 25 years ago. As an African-American man, Cave felt vulnerable after the incident, so he created these “suits” as a type of armor to protect him from profiling by concealing race, gender and class.
This exhibit features suits the artist has made over an eight-year span. They are mixed-media works featuring all of the different materials the artists uses in his other works and then some. Cave does wear them and perform in them (he studied at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater), and their undeniable beauty and sparkle is part of what the artist does to lure you to look.
One Soundsuit from 2010 is made with buttons, a basket and upholstery. Like all of the Soundsuits, the piece is clearly a human form. It becomes something “other,” or even strictly sculpture, by the way in which the basket is integrated into the overall human-like form.
The buttons create a surface and texture that is on the one hand like armor, but also becomes something even more transformative, like a special skin. It looks like a creature from a story who has a remarkable purpose all its own.
"Nick Cave: Feat." is a unique opportunity to see 10 years of work that helped propel Cave onto the international stage. It’s also a wonderful nod to the programming the Akron Art Museum is doing to engage the community in a broad, invigorating and meaningful way. It should not be missed.
Contact Anderson Turner at email@example.com.