Bloomfield Hills, MI

Nick Cave wearing Soundsuit, 2003, Michigan Central Station, Detroit, 2015.

Nick Cave wearing Soundsuit, 2003, Michigan Central Station, Detroit, 2015.

Nick Cave

Cranbrook Art Museum

Nick Cave wearing Soundsuit, 2003, Michigan Central Station, Detroit, 2015.

Nick Cave’s work moves fluidly between sculpture, performance, and social practice and explores the African American body as a site of tragedy, as well as a catalyst for change. Focusing primarily on the artist’s work from 2014 and 2015, the Cranbrook Art Museum presented a powerful demonstration of Cave’s incisive critical take on the current sociopolitical climate, while simultaneously evidencing his efforts to assemble alternative communities.

The show, curated by Laura Mott, opened with a selection of twenty-nine Soundsuits, Cave’s signature wildly decorated dreamlike armatures, whose stitched, beaded, buttoned, and toy-festooned forms simultaneously evoke African art, the costumes donned by New Orleans Mardi Gras revelers, contemporary couture by Jean Paul Gaultier, and mass-market consumer ephemera. Ranging from fragile, almost unwearable sculptural works to soft—if bulky—performance garb, Cave’s Soundsuits transform their wearers into astonishing, shaman-like figures, while concealing obvious signs of gender, race, and class. Protective as well as constraining, the Soundsuits were here arranged as a sculptural ensemble, seemingly gathered into an organized group, or perhaps phalanx, poised for some kind of unidentified mission. Whether their purpose was celebration, protest, or religious ritual remained (intentionally) indeterminate.

In a second room, seven Soundsuits, predominantly white and emblazoned with various decorations—including buttons, floral appliqués, a wood and metal washboard, and industrial metal-polishing pads painted with red-and-white bull’s-eyes—were juxtaposed with a massive beaded untitled tapestry (made earlier this year) evoking a star-filled sky. The installation, which also included a large wall-mounted circular sculpture, Tondo, 2012, ornamented with a similarly celestial theme, explored the relationship between fine art and craft. Although the suits were predominantly light and the skies largely dark, each was shot through with its opposite tone. And as one stared at the individual beads, buttons, and appliqués spread across the figures and environments, the dichotomy between black and white became a commingling, an integration of a spectrum of different hues.

A third room presented the artist’s most recent sculptural output, some of which was shown at Jack Shainman in New York last year, and further emphasized the importance of contemporary black experience to Cave’s work. If the Soundsuits evoke dance and celebration, the sculptures in this room struck a more static and mournful tone. They are also less unified—the appropriated mass-market and thrift-store objects from which they are made are generally not sewn together; instead the parts are allowed to retain a more singular existence. TM13, 2015, a humanoid form composed of sneakers, jeans, a hooded sweatshirt, plastic lawn toys, and multicolored netting threaded with pony beads, memorializes Trayvon Martin, the black teenager slain in Florida in 2012 (the 13 in the work’s title references the year his assailant, George Zimmerman, was acquitted). From certain angles, TM13 looks like a giant Easter Island head; from others, a striding figure that appears both trapped and weighed down by its constituent parts. Hustle Coat, 2014, hung on a wall nearby. Gold bling—chains, watches, etc.—covers the entirety of the garment’s interior. Suggesting the garb of a 1970s street-corner fence, the coat, with its jagged and glittering interior, seems ready to rend the flesh of anyone brave enough to put it on. In the center of the room, a black lawn-jockey statuette stood on an antique shoeshine stand, surveying an array of boxes containing various found and made objects, including vintage ceramic birds, thistle seed, and strung beads arranged in a strict geometry on the floor. Confronting the viewer with two powerful symbols of black subjugation, the sculpture Property, 2014, evokes at once a flea market and an aerial diagram of a slave ship. As these works and the show’s attendant wall texts suggested, although Cave mines collective aspirations for strong, supportive communities and for compassion grounded in mutual understanding, he also directly engages with the nightmares of black experience—the terrible cycles of pain, violence, and suffering that characterize not only the present moment but also our nation’s long history of systematized inequity.

The exhibition concluded with a room in which one wall bore the title “Map/Action.” The map in question provided the locations of the photo shoots, dance labs, film screenings, and performances that Cave organized in conjunction with local artists and communities between the spring and early fall of this year. A monitor displayed videos shot by the Detroit-based production company Right Brothers, which documented these often collaborative and improvisational events—happenings that were designed to bring attention to different parts of Detroit’s diverse urban fabric. Embracing the city that had helped to empower him when he studied at Cranbrook Academy of Art in the predominantly white enclave of Bloomfield Hills in the late 1980s, Cave, through his collaborative practice, harnesses social engagement as a means to work toward collective healing.

Matthew Biro