The ‘uncategorizable’ American artist Nick Cave
Nick Cave lives, works, thinks, and creates where art, sculpture, dance, found objects, and racial identity meet.
The early days
American mixed-media artist Nick Cave was born in Jefferson City, Missouri, in February 1959. Cave studied at Kansas City (Missouri) Art Institute, graduating with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in 1982. There, he also studied with The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. The company was made up primarily of black dancers. Cave went on to obtain a Masters in Fine Arts at Cranbrook Academy of Art, then chaired the Art Institute of Chicago’s fashion design program.
These mashups of art, dance, fashion – and other media – would come to characterize Nick Cave’s work. He would not be confined to just one medium.
The New York Times has called Cave “an uncategorizable talent who has never fit in the mold of the artist in his studio. …his work, which combines sculpture, fashion and performance, connects the anxieties and divisions of our tie to the intimacies of the body.”‘
Cave’s most well-known works are certainly his “Soundsuits.” Since the early 90s, Cave has fashioned sculptures from found materials. He embellishes those found materials with beadwork, stitching, and other adornments. Where did the name Soundsuits come from? One of Cave’s first such creations was designed and created to be worn and to create a rustling sound. That sound led to the name. That combination of sights, sounds, and performance is classically Cave.
Reviewer Roberta Smith said in 2006: “Whether Nick Cave’s efforts qualify as fashion, body art or sculpture, and almost regardless of what you ultimately think of them, they fall squarely under the heading of Must Be Seen to Be Believed.”
Producing his uncategorizable works meant, Smith described, Cave had to know something – or a lot! – about sewing, draping, beading, quilting, scavenging, supplementing, adorning, and that he be skilled with twigs, string, paint, socks, sweaters, dryer lint, and Easter grass.
Art that provokes thought
The Brooklyn Museum has a Cave Soundsuit in its collection. The museum says Cave’s costumes are inspired by sources including “African and Caribbean traditions of masquerade.” Cave’s soundsuits are more than something to look at, but also something to experience. And also something intended to provoke thoughtfulness and debate about real issues in society. As described by the Brooklyn Museum:
Cave’s Soundsuits may also serve as a sort of armor, protecting against the violence of racial stereotypes and giving their wearers an outsize, fanciful, and transcendent presence. Cave designed his first Soundsuit in response to the brutal police beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles in 1992.
The suits act as a second skin that obscures race, gender, and class. It allows – or perhaps forces – viewers to consider the wearer’s identity without bias. The website art21.org, in its profile of Nick Cave, says that Cave himself regularly performs in his own sculptures – dancing for the public or on camera.
About dancing… Cave works in the medium, too. Art21.org describes how he works with choreographers, dancers and amateur performers to produce lavish community celebrations in untraditional venues for art.
What is Cave up to?
But what does Cave say himself about his own work? He has described his Soundsuits as “less intellectual than emotional.” And, if his intention to force collisions between art and ideas wasn’t clear enough, read this: “He initially conceived of them as a kind of race-, class- and gender-obscuring armature, one that’s both insulating and isolating, an articulation of his profound sense of vulnerability as a black man.”
Cave has developed soundsuitshop.com where the public can purchase “simple, practical items [that] transport Nick’s richly patterned, highly conceptual artworks into the realm of everyday life.”
He has also opened a new multidisciplinary art space in the South Old Irving Park neighborhood in Chicago – Facility. It’s intended as “an incubator for collaborations with young artists of all media.” Seems appropriate. The first collaborative work produced out of Facility? And the message that is spelled out in the window of Facility? “Love Thy Neighbor”
A deeper dive – related reading from the 101:
A very different sort of art, to be sure. But no less compelling and inspiring.
Learn more here about Leonardo da Vinci, Georgia O’Keefe, and Frida Kahlo.