A thick webbing of pastel- and neon-colored beads connects a constellation of rubber animals and plastic, mismatched Easter eggs. Vintage metal toys and classroom-style globes spin a motionless orbit around a crochet-covered mannequin that stands stick-straight on the head of a large ceramic egg. Iris purple, rose pink, and yellow faux flowers cover a layer of fabric sequined with large orange discs, tapering upward into a grid of black and gray blooms that burst wide open around the angled shape of a coffin.
Elevated on a curved white platform, Nick Cave’s Soundsuits stand tall, between seven and nine feet off the ground. Fitted over mannequins, these works of art and costume come in a dazzling variety of colors, patterns, layers and materials.
Staggered in a loose cluster, they look like a procession of spirits — faceless, ornamented, and just slightly larger than life. You, too, might feel unsettled by their looming size and chaotic extravagance, even as the candy-like colors and glittering textures draw you in.
A caption explains how Cave conceived his first Soundsuit, following the Los Angeles Police Department’s infamous beating of Rodney King in 1991: “Cave sat in a Chicago park, contemplating King’s treatment and the broader injustice of police violence against Black men. As he sat, he began collecting twigs … He later sewed the twigs into a garment … a means of obscuring his identity as a queer Black man for protection while paradoxically amplifying his radical otherness.”
Those unfamiliar with Cave’s work might be surprised to learn the grim backstory behind these vibrant, colorful works. But a walkthrough of his earlier artwork and style, presented alongside the Soundsuits and other recent works in this retrospective from MCA Chicago, reveals a career-long focus on racism and Black representation, and a tendency to recontextualize and elevate found materials that might otherwise be discarded.
MCA Chicago’s NICK CAVE: FOROTHERMORE Retrospective Showcases Artist’s Kaleidoscopic Style
Following the Soundsuits, we see a series of works made from rusted, recycled metals and very little ornamentation. Minimal and stripped down, these pieces from early in Cave’s career provide a surprising contrast against the color and opulence of their successors. While Hare and Mallet, tinged with pink and topped with a small black rabbit, shows slight kinship with his later works, Mobile Construction Trees, comprising only rusted metal slabs, looks like work from a completely different artist.
These two opposite styles unite in Time and Again (2000), a large installation piece that Cave constructed after his grandfather’s death. Here he incorporates his grandfather’s agricultural tools and religious objects into an altar-like scene, where dozens of iterations of Jesus on the cross hang alongside rusted chains and shovels. We see a style of layering and object repetition that foreshadows many of his later works, and a tendency to uplift objects of little monetary value that are personally or connotatively meaningful.
In Hustle Coat (2021), for example, dozens of gold and silver watches, chains and rhinestone-studded necklaces hang inside an open black trench coat. Here the objects are much more polished and eye-catching than in Time and Again, but there are similarities that allow us to trace Cave’s trajectory: the cluttered layers and overlapping of repeated objects; the crowding of many unique but similar items, collected into one textured and indistinct whole. Here he pays tribute to another line of work not typically seen as glamorous or reputable: that of a street vendor illegally selling knockoff jewelry.
While some pieces are playful, in this writer’s view, and seem to comment indirectly on topics of class, race and sexuality, others, especially those that explicitly invoke racist imagery and anti-Black violence, have a darker tone that stands out against these comparatively light-hearted works. In pieces like Penny Catcher, Sea Sick, and Sacrifice, Cave combines derogatory, Jim Crow-era likenesses of Black people with other found materials in order to deliver his own message on topics such as colonialism, violence, and class discrimination.
Contrasted against these distorted representations are works that incorporate beauty and realism: a cast bronze sculpture of Cave’s own chest and arm adorned with garlands of flora; his hand holding flowers, outstretched toward the viewer as if in offering.
It is a startling breadth of work, in this writer’s opinion, from an artist with a kaleidoscopic eye and the poetic ability to visually articulate nuances of race, culture and identity. MCA Chicago's Nick Cave: Forothermore is a must-see for viewers interested in art that engages current events and sociopolitical topics, and for anyone else seeking an astounding visual experience.
About the Author: Lily LeaVesseur
Lily LeaVesseur has harbored a fondness for the arts since she was a few months old, when her parents took her on her first of many stroller rides through the halls of the Art Institute of Chicago. Even after moving to San Diego as a child, she returned many times so that she could stare down her favorite pieces, combing them over again and again for clues to their greatness.
She carried this enthusiasm like a missionary, and in high school petitioned to re-open the single Art History course on the roster so that she could study it with her friends. She loved feeling like she could unlock some sort of intangible mystery behind works of art, and looking for herself within the artists that created them.
Since then Lily has continued to explore art both analytically and creatively. She now writes poetry and non-fiction, sometimes accompanied by illustrations or watercolor, and hopes to one day collect these works into a graphic novel. When she's not writing or drawing, she can otherwise be found skating with friends, experimenting with new food combinations, and/or lying on the floor contemplating the transcendental nature of TikTok.