Nick Cave Scavenges From a Shameful History: "Made for Whites by Whites" Favorite 

Practitioner: 

Date: 

Sep 1 2014

Location: 

Jack Shainman Gallery

Marcel Duchamp, father of the readymade, forced the world to consider mundane things as significant objects, worthy of greater-than-average contemplation — yet his bicycle wheel, shovel, and urinal didn’t come freighted with all that much history. For Nick Cave, the 55-year old, Chicago-based African-American artist who opens two shows across Jack Shainman’s Chelsea spaces today, the readymade offers a chance to engage with far more traumatic, nuanced backstories. A range of new sculptures in “Made For Whites By Whites,” at the 20th Street gallery, are built around racist memorabilia that Cave sourced at thrift and antique shops across the United States over the past few years. Sometimes the artist’s interventions on the object are minimal — as in a sculpture that gently places the grossly caricatured head of a black man, originally part of a carnival game, in two bronze hands cast from Cave’s own. In “Sea Sick,” a similarly distorted face — what was originally re-sold as a spittoon, but which turned out to be a container for tobacco — is surrounded by a structure built from found paintings of ships, a clear nod to the passage of slave vessels to the U.S.

For an artist best known for vibrantly colorful “Soundsuits” and a celebrated public performance at Grand Central Station in Manhattan, this new work — much of which had its debut over the summer at Shainman’s School in Kinderhook, New York — may seem uncharacteristically raw, incorporating shoe-shine brushes, Golliwog dolls, lawn jockeys, and other grossly uncomfortable artifacts from our national past. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that the artist is reacting directly to our current news cycle. Want a quick way to feel like a naïve, 33-year-old white art critic raised in the suburban wilds of New Jersey? Try to get Nick Cave to talk about this new body of work’s relevance to what’s happening right now down in Ferguson, Missouri: “Honey, it’s always happening,” he said.

These are sculptures about servitude and struggle, but also about beauty and ornamentation, and about ways in which history can be spun and reclaimed. Cave’s Golliwog doll sits atop a massive pile of blankets in “King of the Hill” — “Instead of looking down upon it, you’re looking up,” he explained. Likewise with “End Upheld,” whose base is a piano stool, a caricature of a burdened black man who is “holding up someone’s ass,” Cave said. The resulting sculpture turns this symbol of subservience into the foundation for a kind of heroic monument composed of found and salvaged trinkets. “Golden Boy” is a tangle of cheap Christmas light fixtures surrounding a statue of a young black child who was originally holding a fishing rod (a symbol more of laziness than leisure, Cave noted). The artist has replaced the rod with a rather disproportionate dildo bedazzled with sequins and Svarowski crystals. (“Fuck it,” Cave joked. “Let’s just continue all these myths.”)

“Property,” an epic piece that is the first thing visitors to the gallery encounter, mixes fabricated objects with found ones, like a circa-1970s cologne bottle shaped like a pistol, or a Topsy-Turvy doll that allowed children to flip between a black servant boy and his white counterpart. These items are cupped in wooden troughs arranged on a bed of thistle seed, the whole arrangement surveyed by a repurposed lawn jockey figure.

Two pieces in “Made By Whites For Whites” harken to a later, more liberated era in American history. One is a sculpture of a badminton set, its golden net trimmed by a Martin Luther King, Jr. quote (“The time is always right to do what is right”), the base topped off with a found sculpture of a hand crossing its fingers for luck. “Star Power” places a sculpture of a Black Power fist atop a stack of vintage stools. “Something in the show has to be uplifting!” Cave said, recalling the personal significance of seeing Olympic athletes give the iconic salute in 1968.

Over at 24th Street in a show titled “Rescue,” the artist is presenting a very different body of work: Baroquely dense, and lacking the charged memorabilia. A series of sculptural-paintings, of sorts, hang on the wall — modeled on garden plots, Cave says, and incorporating countless bird and flower statuettes, arrayed along with jewelry on a metal armature that sits atop a stitched-quilt backdrop. These pieces are joined by a series of sculptures in which dog statues sit on upholstered furniture, shielded beneath a dome of statuettes, and creating a sort of canine “den,” Cave said.

While the artist insisted the message here is as pointed as on 20th Street — that he was thinking of canines in painting’s history and class relations, and the resonance of the word “dawg” in hip-hop vernacular — the works aren’t likely to cause the same friction as those in “Made By Whites For Whites,” where the artist said he was concerned with “stripping things down” to their “bare essence.” As such, Cave seems poised on an interesting pivot — somewhere between making beautiful things and addressing ugly realities, albeit using the tools of beauty.

--by Scott Indrisek for Blouinartinfo

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