Nick Cave

at Wood Street Gallery, through October 19

By Fred Camper

Among Nick Cave’s 43 works at Wood Street are a number of full-body suits he’s worn as a performance artist. Described by one critic as “flamboyant garments that shimmer in the lights and rattle with movement,” each is made of just a few materials. One is composed mostly of crushed cans and colored plastic streamers, another of twigs, which make a surprisingly lush surface. Together they suggest an interest in ritual–and the artist told me he’s studied “ritual and ceremonial performances from various cultures in Africa.” But what most struck me about them is Cave’s joyous use of materials. There’s a celebratory tone to his obsessively repeated, carefully arranged motifs; this is clothing that commands our attention. Even the ominous suggestion of a KKK hood in one and the pointed way it mixes feathers with sticks can’t completely undercut the pure pleasure one gets from its vibrant, sensuous surface.

A Missouri native and Chicagoan since 1989, Cave, 38, is also a designer–and a partner in the store, Robave, that sells his clothing. “My work is generated from being a black male in America,” he told an interviewer recently, connecting his use of inexpensive or discarded materials with the way “black men are taken for granted and considered disposable.” Oddly, however, neither his suits nor his statements prepared me for the almost elegiac, self-abnegating, antiflamboyant quality of most works in this show.

The formal elements of Cave’s superficially showy objects undercut their self-assertion. In one untitled sculpture, number 14 on the gallery checklist, a tall, thin glass cone rises from a rusty metal base, perhaps a round casting Cave found in the street. The cone, by contrast, is smooth and clean; a reddish fluid inside gives it color and a sharply defined shape. But halfway up, the fluid becomes white, and as the cone rises to its phallic peak it becomes nearly invisible against the white gallery walls, almost vanishing just where it should be most assertive. In another untitled sculpture (number 18), discolored cast-metal hands seem bound by a rusty chain; one palm is empty, while the other holds a bunch of rusty nails. In number 19, a box holds a yellow glass tube whose shape suggests a condom; a small, rusty pitchfork above it seems to entrap it, hinting at damnation. The AIDS reference here, and in other pieces with similar glass condoms, is hard to decode completely, but certainly these are not bright, happy cartoons saying, “Just use Mr. Condom and all will be well.”

The show’s newest pieces–16 panels that incorporate shirts and fragments of shirts Cave purchased in thrift shops–are unlike anything else of his I’ve seen; they’re also the show’s most moving works. Mounted on wood and covered with paint, dirt, and old varnish, the garments become monochromatic, almost blending in with the panels. The vertical Shirt in Flight has a child’s shirt in its upper half, the sleeves folded over as if the garment had been hastily dropped. Its position on the panel and dynamic lines give it life–a life simultaneously drained by the fact that the only colors here are grays and blacks.

Perhaps more than any other garment the shirt suggests a human presence. The way Cave covers shirts with paint seems a denial of that presence, suggesting that the whole work is only a painting, the shirt a mere aesthetic object; indeed, at a distance one might mistake these for paintings of shirts. But the actual presence of clothing someone once wore takes these works beyond the realm of the aesthetic, giving them some of the messy, imprecise qualities of a person.

In fact, a good deal of Cave’s recent work was generated by the death of his youngest brother: “I wasn’t there when he passed on, so I didn’t have a sense of closure. These works are really about the whole notion of what you do with those emotions.” A number of pieces arrange two cutoff shirtsleeves side by side, almost like wings–“guardian angels,” Cave says. Yet these too are covered in gray or tan paint, and looking at them, I couldn’t help thinking of the way each sleeve is torn from the rest of the shirt, suggesting not only wings but dismemberment.

In three large untitled pieces Cave arranges square panels, each with a shirt pocket in the middle, in a grid or row: numbers 21 and 23 are single lines of panels while the third, number 3, is a 6-by-5 grid of 30. Cave thinks of the pockets as “references to containers that store information,” hinting at the uniqueness of each human being. But one’s first impression of these grids is of repetition: one pocket after another in colors that don’t vary much. Indeed, in the largest grid the only colors are shades of gray. I thought of the rectilinear compositions of Josef Albers, Ad Reinhardt, and Sol LeWitt. But Cave’s squares are not mere painted shapes–nor are they simply shirt pockets. Rather, Cave has included the fabric around the pockets, centering each in its painted panel, offering a messy, found-object alternative to Albers’s purist squares within squares. Once again, these images are not painterly representations, not metaphors, but remnants of actual garments, cloth that once touched a human body and played a role in someone’s life. I began to notice that each pocket design was a bit different; each had a different kind of button–in short, that each came from a different human being.

Reinhardt’s and LeWitt’s grids suggest ideal forms, an invisible order. And Cave’s monumental 30-panel grid certainly dwarfs the viewer physically. But looking at it carefully reveals that its repeating forms are continually disrupted by tiny variations in fabric, shape, texture, and design, and those changes are what most command our attention. Cave rejects the idea of an invisible ideal in favor of something tangible: the physical substance of the world and all the particular variations that make each thing, and by implication each person, unique.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): uncredited photo.