Last Night's Art Talk: Nick Cave at Lipscomb



I walked into the lecture room at maybe 5 minutes after 7, and Nick Cave was already being introduced. Unfortunately, I didn't catch the name of the guy who was doing the introducing, with his crisp suit and preacher hair, but even from the back of the room I could tell I wasn't the only one who cringed when he described with disbelief that Cave based his creative practice on a combination of textiles and modern dance, as if that was the weirdest idea ever. It took me about ten minutes to get away from the defiant teenager that I always turn into when faced with guys like that, but by the end of the lecture I almost felt like the roles reversed, and Cave was the one expressing amazement at the weird things that people who are nothing like him are capable of.

He stood behind the podium in front of a packed-to-modest-capacity audience, wearing a leather ball cap and a fitted white T-shirt with a bright red spot on the front. He immediately told the audience that he works with 15 full-time assistants, and eight additional interns during the summer months. After the lecture, a friend of mine commented with an eye roll that he mentioned the name "Mary Boone" about five times. (He just wrapped up a solo show at Mary Boone, which is what led Lipscomb's Rocky Horton to invite him to Nashville.) It's true that Cave seems very comfortable with his success, but I don't think humility is the virtue a lot of people identify it as. I respect an artist who owns his accomplishments.

Caves first Soundsuit
  • Cave's first Soundsuit
He said that, although people often think of his Soundsuits as flamboyant or quirky, in his mind they're actually pretty dark. That doesn't surprise me — the creepy facelessness of his mascots are part Klansmen, part circus clown, and the suits signify costumes, and dressing up the need to hide. He told the audience that his first Soundsuit was created in response to the Rodney King beating in 1991, as a kind of armor that codifies the black male experience.

Over and over, Cave referred to his love of low crafts, like hook rugs and plastic ornaments. (On pipe-cleaners: "I can't stand them, but at the same time, they are amazing!") He and a group of assistants go on craft-gathering road trips about four times a year, flying to Texas, say, and then driving back up to Chicago, stopping at every flea market and antique mall along the way. He's adamant about not being able to come up with the materials for his work on his own, not having the time or the capability to really think about something so kitschy and turn it into something to keep. It was a strange dichotomy — he makes work out of kitsch but somehow transcends it. He continually expressed amazement at the "far-out, extreme" type of aesthetic involved in making something like a hooked-rug Raggedy Ann, or a plastic lawn ornament shaped like an Easter bunny. It was funny, then, to compare that to his introduction by a man to whom modern dance and textiles seemed like such an unlikely pair. It almost made me want to hear what that guy would have to say about hooked rugs and pipe-cleaners.

An example of the type of material Cave uses in his work
  • An example of the type of material Cave uses in his work
In my Critic's Pick, I referenced the documentary First Contact, and I still think the comparison is apt. (If you're not familiar with the documentary, it's fantastic, and it's downloadable, at least in part, online.) I'm a sucker for cultural appropriation, but Cave does it so well, he recreates the materials he works with so completely, that it doesn't come across as kitsch, or even appropriation. It's like a shrine that is worn on the body, and the act of wearing it becomes some sort of sacrament to the people who really love their Lion King rugs, or their Voodoo dolls, or their Cosby sweaters.

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