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Sound Garden: Nick Cave at the Center of the Earth

Exhibit at Boise Art Museum pushes the boundaries


Nick Cave is a phenomenon unto himself--that's the consensus of both the art and mainstream media, and of many of those familiar with his art. There is no question he is one of a kind.

The response to his more notorious art forms brings to mind the art world reaction to Matthew Barney's Cremaster series of art films in the 1990s. As with Cremaster, we are presented with an artist whose unique genius dissolves the formerly sacrosanct boundaries of modern art history, in the process re-invigorating a perceived stagnant contemporary scene, pushing art into new directions, imposing new questions in the process. We always get worked up when confronted with such moments and individuals.

Cave's culminating multimedia project entitled Meet Me at the Center of the Earth--at Boise Art Museum through Sunday, Nov. 4--is a touring exhibit that has been on the road since March 2009, beginning at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, then to Los Angeles and the Southwest, the East Coast and back.

BAM Curator of Art Sandy Harthorn first saw Cave's exhibit at the Yerba Buena Center in 2009 and thought it was a perfect exhibit to match the celebratory tone of BAM's 75th anniversary. With the tour ending in March, she immediately took advantage of the show's availability to score a coup and bring it to Boise. The exhibit has been immensely popular, bringing many nonmembers in during what is usually a slow season for the museum.

Dominating the show are Cave's signature "soundsuits," which he has created by the hundreds over the years. It's an art form that uniquely straddles the worlds of found-object art and performance, fashion and mysticism, nature and consciousness, in the process drawing from a wide range of influences. His art is dazzling and entertaining but can also be mystifyingly dark with shamanistic and racial overtones. An artist of enormous energy and vision, the intricacies of his mediums and technique are impossible to take in at once.

For starters, Cave's aesthetic is so idiosyncratic and diverse that it is a complicated matter to classify in familiar terms. A plethora of precedents and perspectives inform his work, with roots in folk art, high fashion, dance, theater, sculpture, fabric art, contemporary urban culture and Third World voodoo.

Secondly, he refuses to let you off the hook when it comes to defining the piece before you. Cave does not title his pieces individually, preferring to provide the viewer the opportunity to use his or her own imagination to describe the experience. Except for occasional curatorial wall texts providing contextual guidance and artist's quotes, the work is allowed to speak for itself which, frankly, is a blessing.

Cave is hardly the flamboyant art star some media coverage would suggest. At age 52, he has been a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago since 1991 in several areas of art. He is currently chairman of the Fashion Department, a nod to the fact that he designed his own fashion lines for both men and women in his post-graduate years. Cave has even appeared in the pages of Vogue, where he wore his soundsuits, carried high-fashion handbags and wore designer boots.

Yet the fact remains that as both an artist and a teacher, Cave takes his role as a multimedia, multicultural black artist in the public eye seriously. As he told ArtNews magazine recently, "I'd like to think of myself as an artist with a civic responsibility."

Over the years, Cave has organized "performance labs" in cities, art schools and universities around the country, in which he enlists local talent, often those with underprivileged backgrounds, to don dozens of soundsuits, choreograph the movements and provide the music.

In Boise, he has teamed with members of Ballet Idaho to present such performances at BAM and has also collaborated with Balance Dance Company to present spontaneous outdoor soundsuit events around the city at undisclosed locations.

The experience of performing in one of Cave's soundsuits was unique for Phyllis Rothwell Affrunti, one of the Ballet Idaho dancers who donned the suits. The full-hair soundsuits are heavy, so the group initially rehearsed without them, but once dancers put on the soundsuit and mask, he or she becomes one with the outfit. On one hand, Affrunti said she had never been so encumbered by a costume, yet she enjoyed the anonymity it provided. That anonymity gave her the freedom to experiment. She found it was easy to get carried away.

Affrunti said audiences react to the soundsuits--especially children. When the dancers wear the soundsuits colored in bright pinks or yellows and oranges, kids seem to enjoy the show. But the darker outfits--like red, blue or purple--scare them a bit.

A video component of the exhibit offers a taste of what the Balance Dance Company events are like, showing one of Cave's spontaneous soundsuit "happenings." Those old enough to remember the impromptu gallery and street "happenings" of the 1960s and '70s will recognize a kindred spirit. The film shows dancers in full soundsuit regalia and make-up, sashaying down a city street, attracting a growing crowd of followers and musicians, eventually turning a public place into a festival. The Balance Dance happenings will be put on during First Thursdays and other citywide summer events.

If anything, Cave's work resonates with a sense of community, whether it be local, global or historical. It is the essence of his artistic soul.

A native of Missouri, Cave grew up in a large, extended family where inheriting hand-me-down clothing from siblings and other relatives was common. Since his youth, Cave entertained himself by collecting and assembling all sorts of found objects and materials, frequently making his own sculptural inventions.