Past is Prologue: Nick Cave at Jack Shainman

At both the 20th St. and 24th St. Shainman Gallery locations, through Oct. 11.

Starting at the end: anything put out there by Cave (b. 1959) is worth not missing.   More to the point, the appropriated cliché of my title above (dating at least to Shakespeare) has found particular resonance in contemporary, mixed media work by African American artists. (The association has been facilitated via the hindsight “Prologue” of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, c. 1952, which has had notable influence on postwar African American art broadly–see the discourse surrounding Thelma Golden’s game-changing Black Male exhibition at the Whitney, 1994.)  Cave has recently re-directed into this vein, pioneered by Betye Saar (b. 1926), and including David Hammons, Fred Wilson, Willie Cole, and Radcliffe Bailey (prominently and at the tip of my tongue, among many others).  A now canonical example of the mode, which entails collecting and recycling material resonant with history—objects, images, fragments—into (new) art is Saar’s assemblage, The Liberation of Aunt Jemima (1972).

(UC Berkeley Art Museum; image: wikipedia).

At 20th St., Cave’s sculptural arrangement, Star Power (2014) specifically recalls Saar’s icon, with its vintage Black Power fist sculpture atop a stack of worn steps, before a backdrop of a red-black-green-quilt-patterned emblem in the shape of the (symbolic) North Star.

Nick Cave, "Star Power" (2014; at Jack Shainman)
Nick Cave, “Star Power” (2014; at Jack Shainman, 20th St., 9/13/14)

It also recalls David Hammons’s textile multiple, African American Flag (c. 1990), as well as his punning constructions and concepts, such as the “higher goals” of his so-named, breakthrough  telephone-pole basketball hoops of the mid-1980s .  Star Power belongs to a mini-group of relatively stoic, if not quite quiet, wall-bound pieces at 20th St. that can suggest cultural memento mori.

David Hammons, "African American Flag" 1990, collection Museum of Modern Art; image from MoMA website ("collections"); it was subsequently issued in a small edition.
David Hammons, “African American Flag” 1990, collection Museum of Modern Art; image from MoMA website (“collections”); it was subsequently issued in a small edition.

Other works exude Cave’s more exuberant, flamboyant aesthetic characteristic of the signature masquerade-like “soundsuits” that have dominated his oeuvre.  Those alien-mannequin sculptures, which share a gene or two with the headless humans of Yinka Shonibare, took a slight turn in 2011 (in simultaneous shows at Shainman and Mary Boone), where their layered cultural and gender evocations began extending literally, in sprouting ornaments and near-tableaux set-ups.  This formal direction is established in several of the new works centered around mass produced black-child-servant figurines—both upholding and obscured by elaborate bird’s-nest “auras” of Eurocentric tchotchkes—miniature faux flora and fauna, twiggy  filigree, assorted, glittering baubles.

Nick Cave (2014; at Shainman).
Nick Cave (2014; at Shainman, 20th St, 9/13/14).

In one variation, a “boy” is transformed into an ithyphallic votive on an electric-candle-lit, make-shift altar that recalls (with divergent sensibility) Willie Cole’s lawn jockey-orisa figures, c. 2000, and Kara Walker’s recent similar figures cast in molasses at her Domino Sugar factory extravaganza in June).

At 24th St., exhibited under the title, “Rescue,” a group of metaphorically enthroned ceramic canines hold court, embellished with similar, even more dense and glitzy entanglements. Among many other things, this collective tour-de-force suggests ancient Egyptian zoomorphic divinity.

The title at 20th Street, “Made by Whites for Whites,” comes into focus cumulatively; I read the Star Power piece as the one weighty foil.  Of the compelling cacophony of colors, textures, mediums, methods, and messages on view across the dual installations, one final highlight here that outs sublimated stereotypes with a humorously blingy art-sartorial statement:

Nick Cave (raincoats, neck and wrist bling, etc.; at Shainman, 20th St., 9/13/14)
Nick Cave (raincoats, neck and wrist bling, respectively, at Shainman, 20th St., 9/13/14)

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