Chicago-based Nick Cave is perhaps best known for his “Soundsuits,” wearable mixed-media sculptures that are equal parts kitsch and couture. Displayed on mannequins in gallery spaces, they seem otherworldly, almost stately; animated by dancers in abandoned urban spaces, they embody an exuberant affirmation of resilience and beauty in the face of adversity. In “Forothermore” (on view through October 2, 2022)—a visually compelling and conceptually rich exhibition that speaks to Cave’s sustained interest in amplifying marginalized voices, particularly those from the Black and LGBTQ+ communities—a large ensemble of Soundsuits joins forces with other iconic projects to form the artist’s most comprehensive survey to date.
The Soundsuit originated as Cave’s response to the 1991 beating of Rodney King and the subsequent riots after the acquittals of the police officers responsible. Envisioned as metaphorical suits of armor, these conceptual body-works paradoxically mask the identity of the wearer while flamboyantly expressing personality. “Forothermore” displays early Soundsuits alongside the most recent versions (referred to by Cave as “Soundsuits 2.0”), which respond to the murder of George Floyd; in these, the presence of black flowers serves to mute otherwise bright color palettes. Cave’s Soundsuits often repurpose the myriad found objects that he procures from antique stores, and their playful, upbeat character belies the gravity of the issues they address. The same dynamic spills into many of Cave’s other projects, and the show makes the point that the interplay between bereavement and celebration has rich historical and cultural roots (for instance, Día de los Muertos).
Many of the found objects that Cave employs are playful and whimsical, but some of his works repurpose overtly racist vintage artifacts that dehumanize Black America. Perhaps his most calculated use of these “relics,” as he calls them, is found in Sea Sick (2014), which juxtaposes old maritime paintings of colonial-era tall ships with a “spittoon” acquired at an antique shop, actually a caricatured bust of an elderly Black man, mouth agape. This provocative work, which also includes cast hands and a plastic ship, is intended to sicken viewers, and it’s a revealing statement about the enduring persistence of racism in America.
Spinner Forest (2020), a massive, site-specific installation and the visual centerpiece of the show, fills the MCA’s atrium with thousands of colorful spinning yard ornaments. Suspended from the ceiling, they create a dazzling, Instagram-worthy spectacle. Stepping in close reveals their shapes to be equal parts benign and menacing; some represent floral and starburst designs, smiley faces, and peace signs, while others depict handguns and bullets. Cave’s use of the commonplace, friendly lawn ornament makes a calculated reference to the omnipresence of American gun culture and gun violence, an issue perpetually and painfully close to home—in our own backyards.
A·mal·gam (2021), one of the final works in the exhibition, is Cave’s first large-scale bronze sculpture. As cities consider what to place in spaces previously occupied by monuments that commemorated and perpetuated America’s racist past, this work suggests the type of public monument that could potentially fill the void. For Cave, the tree is a “migration hub, where flocks of birds come together, collectively,” and as such, his sculpture becomes a metaphor and symbol for pushing back against the politics and policies of exclusion.
It’s no small feat for the work of a single artist to fill the massive fourth-floor galleries at the MCA so snugly. In addition to Cave’s sculptural work, many square yards of wall space are covered with wallpaper designed by Cave in collaboration with creative and life partner Bob Foust. The imagery features photographs of Cave’s works repeated and re-presented in abstract, kaleidoscopic patterns.
“Forothermore” is a visually dazzling exhibition that showcases Cave’s relentlessly imaginative variations of repurposed found objects, masterfully assembled into works that manage to be both celebratory and poignant. It also spotlights his ability to transpose the artistic vocabulary that he established in 1991 and continuously re-apply it to speak to contemporary events, using artifacts and detritus from the past to offer pointed commentaries on the injustices of the American present.
Following the presentation at MCA Chicago, “Nick Cave: Forothermore” will be on view at the Guggenheim Museum from November 18, 2022–April 10, 2023.