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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.

He obtained his bachelor's degree in Fine Arts at the Kansas City Art Institute, where he studied sculpture, fabric art, performance and dance. During summer breaks, he trained with Alvin Ailey dance programs in Kansas City and New York. While working on his master's degree at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, he was criticized for not being more focused on one specific art form. Apparently, such an approach was never meant to be as he has remained an artist of multiple disciplines.

Consequently, Cave's oeuvre is remarkably diverse and prolific. His interplay between art and craft makes the boundary between the two indistinguishable. The large hard-bound catalog accompanying the touring exhibit is like a catalogue raisonne of the range of Cave's artistic production over the last half-dozen years, going well beyond the scope of the exhibit at BAM.

But tellingly, and perhaps prophetically, Cave's youthful proclivities, love of movement and dance and post-graduate adventures in fashion came together in his work as an artist in an unexpected way via an act of brutality.

In 1991, the world watched the videotaped, savage beating of Rodney King by officers of the Los Angeles Police Department. This violent, racial hate crime had an enormous impact on Cave, who had come close to experiencing the same thing himself, and so it induced a mix of outrage and vulnerability that cried out for a response.

The result was Cave's first soundsuit.

Wandering in the woods to contemplate this act of inhumanity and racism, he returned to his gatherer ways, collecting twigs and branches from which he created a wearable sculpture that clattered with movement. It was a provocative, uncomfortable vision to confront. Its demeanor said "stand back." Cave told an interviewer that the experience enabled him to transform emotional trauma into creative energy, that his sculpture, in part, "was an armor of sorts, protecting my spirit."

Cave backed off from the defensive-aggressive dynamic of the soundsuits for several years after the 1990s, but when he returned to them, he proved himself a gentle soul. Even though at times dark forces peek through in Meet Me at the Center of the Earth, the exhibit at BAM is as generous as it is eye opening.

Going into the exhibit is like entering some magic kingdom of the imagination where tall humanoid figures in outrageous tights sport lush vegetation, floor-length hair, and all sorts of paraphernalia, materials and playthings. Meanwhile, larger-than-life bears and smaller creatures lumber about covered with crazy quilts of mismatched woolen sweaters and swaths of fabric. Serpent-like fabric tubes writhe on the floor or crawl up mannequins obliterating any recognizable features. Glimmering, shimmering coats of sequins, buttons and a variety of faux ornamentation, the sheer volume of which is enough to produce a rhythmic clatter when set in motion, makes for a different sort of clamor, as demonstrated in several videos. As one voice-over repeats again and again: "This is a journey into sound."

The exhibit is very much an Alice-in-Wonderland experience, with its mix of playfulness and the inexplicable. Cave manages to instill his mundane, inanimate materials with a secret life empowered by contextualization and association. The fact that the implied potential movement of the sculptural pieces seems to be one of slow motion lends an air of pent-up energy threatening to cut loose, a sense reinforced by the large color photographs of individual works in dance-mode on display throughout the show.

His concerns for the animal kingdom are emphasized not only in a small gallery off BAM's Sculpture Court but throughout the exhibit. The larger-than-life bears add something of a circus element to the exhibit, especially in their unlikely costumes of stitched-together human clothes. In fact, Cave's message can be seen as a jab at our mistreatment of animals via a role-reversal whereby these creatures clothe themselves in human attire versus our dressing ourselves in theirs.

In a sense, it makes us look a little ridiculous, not them. Clearly, Cave's depiction of these imposing creatures is intended to encourage compassion toward them.

The ubiquitous priest-like creatures covered in fine, floor-length, brightly dyed human hair and decorated with abstract designs conjure the human body despite their limbless, alien otherness. The designs on their hair "suits" appear to have a ritualistic significance as they share a vague, emblematic uniformity. The duplicative effects they create in dance stamp them as representing a shaman class in this multifarious society Cave conjures from the Center of the Earth.

There is a powerful suggestion of pagan ritual in Cave's art, and the world he imagines requires intermediaries between the natural and supernatural realms to work their magic and cure our spiritual ills. He talks about creating through these figures: "hair creates an animal sensibility ... it's seductive but also a bit scary."

BAM's Sculpture Court part of the exhibit appears to underscore the role of these shamans. On the west wall are two immense tondo compositions, beautifully designed and alight with beads, sequined shapes and stellar appliques. The darker tondo on the left reads like a constellation map capturing classic mythology in a glorious night sky. The other is a more fanciful and dazzling symbolic interpretation. Both imply humanity's overlay of its imagination and vision on the eternal.

In the center of the Sculpture Court standing before the tondos are five hair-covered shamanesque figures, the personification of humankind's search for meaning in the midst of nothingness. The reverent silence there is palpable.

Cave's Center of the Earth is not simply a geophysical fact but a place for the imagination and the spirit. In the end, one cannot deny the primeval impulse that fuels Cave's project.

There is an element of animism in his aesthetic, the belief that all natural objects and phenomena--and perhaps the universe itself--possess souls, which may even exist apart from their material bodies, seeking to express themselves. Cave, I believe, is tuned into this. Perhaps it is what art is ultimately all about anyway.

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