New York

Nick Cave

Pioneers of Cubism, Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, and Conceptualism all braved the establishment’s most elementary and con- founding query: “Why is this art?” Nick Cave’s “Soundsuits,” 1991– , his primary body of work (this isn’t the Nick Cave of the Bad Seeds), summon the same line of inquiry. Dazzling and bejeweled, sequined and beaded, the costumes conflate brilliant African robes or the fanciful plumage of Mardi Gras attire with a thrift-store aesthetic both grandmotherly and evocative of the Providence look associated most closely with the artist Jim Drain. The “Soundsuits” have in the past functioned as clamorous clothing; Cave—a former dancer in Alvin Ailey’s company—has orchestrated performances proposing them as ritualistic objects. But what exactly is the ritual and how is it to be communicated when, in Cave’s second solo show at Jack Shainman, there is no evidence of it, when the twenty-three suits are displayed on mannequins mugging on platforms like so many bodies on a runway? In other words, Cave would make a philistine of even the most seasoned art viewer by posing this conundrum: Art or couture?

Based in Chicago, Cave worked as a fashion designer and owned his own clothing shop for about a decade before he began exhibiting as an artist “proper” in 1999. In addition to the “Soundsuits,” Cave showed a series of assemblages in which the overtly racist strain of simian lawn figurines now called “contemptible collectibles” hoist metal cagelike structures holding objects including porcelain birds and metal flowers. Cave has referred to the works as studies for the “Soundsuits”; they also serve the dual function of creating a context for his art outside of fashion. But there is no doubt that the suits remain his signature work.

The Mardi Gras costumes worn by working-class African-American crews or “tribes” known as “Mardi Gras Indians” are the best American visual reference point for Cave’s suits. Combining Caribbean and Native American design, the Indians’ costumes of flock, rhinestones, beads, and brightly colored fabric can weigh up to 150 pounds. Their annual creation is a secretive and laborious ritual; they are unveiled during Mardi Gras, in events that have evolved from violent turf showdowns into competitive spectacles more like improvisational battles between rappers or break-dancers. Cave’s suits share their visual verve but are less ritualistic than “trippy.” Six have been made exclusively with fluorescent woven hair: imperiously psychedelic Chewbaccas. The remaining gaggle in this exhibition were crowded together on a U-shaped platform. Most of them are extravagant amalgamations of colorful patterns taken from vintage sweaters and embellished with armies of sequins, buttons, and sundry accessories. The heads and torsos of five figures are obscured by metal armatures—cages, essentially—gussied up with the same strain of Miss Havisham–ish flourish as the lawn figurines.

Used textiles and a fetish for visual signifiers of the ’70s have become prominent with artists in recent years, including several—Shinique Smith, Rashawn Griffin, Mickalene Thomas—who were in the Studio Museum in Harlem’s important “Frequency” exhibition with Cave. The “Soundsuits” are dazzling, finely crafted objects, but their indulgence in vintage seems to be purely aesthetic; they don’t exude much in the way of psychological effect. Cave invents a visual shamanism of his own, but the lure of a mystic transcends bedazzlement.

Nick Stillman