For the second showing of his “Soundsuits” at Jack Shainman Gallery, Nick Cave offered a profusion of opulent fabrics, porcelain birds and plastic flowers. A U-shaped platform in the main room displayed more than a dozen of Cave’s signature costumes, here featuring floral jacquard, neon sequins, flaps of knitwear and harlequin patchwork, all worn by mannequins looming over the viewer. The suits in this group were either shaped like oversize oven mitts with stockinged feet or skintight, full-body outfits encased from the waist up in a tangle of metal branches blossoming with artificial flowers, bird figurines and vintage tin noisemakers. Cave, who is chair of the fashion department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, assembles the suits with meticulous handiwork from flea market finds and other recycled materials. The results evoke Christian Lacroix haute couture, as in the designer’s Spring ’09 boleros tiered with petals and embroidered dresses embellished with silk flowers.
Presiding over the assembly like high priests was a row of six robed figures. Their yeti-like coats are dyed in hues that recall Polly Apfelbaum’s “fallen paintings” or the shadows cast by Daniel Buren’s colored-glass hangings. The tall cylindrical headdresses donned by some of the figures in the group evoke traditional costumes worn in the Yoruba region of Nigeria during the local Egungun festival, their spiritual power activated when the costume appears in a ritual dance. Similarly, the name “Soundsuit” conjures the rustling, clanking, swishing noises made by the materials of Cave’s garments when worn. When the clothes are displayed on mannequins, the term reinforces the absence of sound and of human occupants.
A new series of assemblages also on view incorporates mass-produced collectibles depicting African-Americans in servitude, such as Aunt Jemima and Uncle Mose salt-shakers. A row of weathered blackface lawn jockeys ran through the front hallway of the gallery carrying, variously, branches weighed with porcelain birds, a rag rug and a trio of yellowing boats. The second in line was a ghostly shade of white—more closely resembling the contemporary, white-skinned version of the lawn jockey—with patches of rust, like skin affected by vitiligo. Cave’s lawn jockeys recall those in the work of Willie Cole, but here the figures are unsettlingly subservient, greeting gallery-goers like subjects offering gifts to their king.
In a side room, an empty business suit with sagging saddle shoes for feet hung from a mounted wooden target with “Penny Catch” spelled out around the circumference. A blackface caricature extends from the center, its eyes bulging and a hollowed mouth limned in red opened wide to form a coin receptacle. This work follows in the tradition of Betye Saar’s assemblages without adding anything. But when coupled with Cave’s popular costumes—and often incorporating the same materials—these assemblages lend a darker mood to the glittering suits and signify a departure to more difficult fare.
Photo above: View of Nick Cave’s exhibition, showing untitled sculptures, all 2009, mixed mediums; at Jack Shainman.