Chicago-based artist Nick Cave wears many hats, and wears them all extremely well. As a sculptor, painter, dancer, performance artist, video and installation artist, his creations are boundary-eradicating explosions of form, colour and meaning.

Cave’s most famous creation, the Soundsuit, is a kind of wearable sculpture. They are larger than life and richly textured, often adorned with multitudes of found objects. The first Soundsuit was created in response to the 1992 beating of African-American motorist Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers. In the wake of that event, Cave, as a young black man, felt vulnerable, unseen and discarded by society. He was drawn to collect sticks and twigs, which he felt represented “unwanted” things. He used them to construct a kind of bristling suit of armour to obscure race, gender, class and identity. The name “Soundsuit” came from the rustling sound the piece produced when Cave put it on and moved about. Since then he has created more than 500 Soundsuits, often in response to urgent and tragic events.

The runway of Soundsuits presented in Nick Cave: Feat. serve as a kind of gateway into what exhibition curator Katie Delmez of the Frist Art Museum in Nashville, Tennessee refers to as the “maximalist world” of the artist.

Delmez chatted with Glenbow News about the variety of works in the exhibition and the once-in-a-lifetime experience of working with this truly exceptional artist.

Terms such as “singular, “genre-defying” and “multi-hyphenate” are often used in the media to describe Nick Cave. What makes him such a unique force in the contemporary art world?
I think it has to do with the fact that he’s a really hard figure to put in one box. You know, we art historians often want to label somebody a painter or a sculptor or a photographer. Nick doesn’t like those labels. In fact, even the more general term “artist”… he can live with that, but he often refers to himself as a messenger, meaning that he has ideas and ways that he’s interested in connecting people and those ideas, and he sees his work as a way of being able to message that to viewers.

Also, I am confident in saying that you’ve never seen anything like his work – they are really, truly unique assemblances. They really stand out as something new. Is it sculpture? Is it performance? Is it dance and movement? In his mind, he’s really wanting to create an immersive and almost escapist environment where we kind of get to leave our everyday existence and just enter his maximalist world.

He’s a prolific artist who has enjoyed a long career. Given the variety and quantity of work he’s produced, how did you approach choosing what to include in this exhibition? Is there a uniting force or thematic thread that ties it all together.
Nick made several visits to Nashville and looked at the space, and I went to Chicago as well for studio visits, and we really thought we wanted to present a mini-survey of his work. Certainly we wanted to go beyond the Soundsuits. Those are a great entry point and obviously a really important part of his practice, and most of the venues presenting the exhibition have started with a runway of Soundsuits.

Nick Cave, Soundsuit, 2010, Mixed media, including buttons, basket, upholstery, and mannequin. Collection of Paul and Rose Carter, VA

Again, it’s a great entryway to talk about his practice and it marks a pretty major shift in his work in the early 90s, but we also really wanted to go broader and deeper. So that meant including some of his more immersive environments such as the Button Wall surrounding the Soundsuits – it’s black fabric onto which he’s attached thousands and thousands of white buttons that are meant to evoke the night sky or space and you’re immediately transported to this other, very different environment.

There is also the Architectural Forest – it’s an amazing work that I can still barely explain to people. It’s this glowing bamboo forest… hundreds of strands of bamboo are hanging from an apparatus on the ceiling that have been custom painted in a variety of colourful patterns. When you walk around the apparatus, sometimes you see a leopard or a car or rainbow. Definitely he’s encouraging close looking at the work. There’s a bright orange vinyl on the floor and these bright orange lights inside, and you can’t really help but feel the piece.

We also wanted to include video work, which Cave has been working in for almost two decades. We wanted to include some of his wall-based sculptures, something from what he calls his “Rescue” series from a few years ago where he specifically looked for porcelain dogs, going to flea markets and second hand stores.

Nick Cave, Rescue, 2014, Mixed media, including ceramic birds, metal flowers, ceramic basset hound, and vintage
settee. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

And then there is one of his newer bodies of work where he was really looking at the position of servitude that many African-Americans have historically been in, and it really demonstrates, in my mind, that the more recent works are a little less subtle – they’re social and political critiques.

The work itself works on multiple levels – it’s fantastical, colourful and fun, yet there are serious social and political underpinnings to it all.
When you asked about his being a singular artist, I think that’s why he’s an artist that’s so well received. Anyone can enjoy his art. You don’t have to have an art history degree to just relate to the colours and the textures and the vibrancy of it all. Small children, old people, and everyone in between can really respond to it, but then it really is much more than a visual delight. There are important social and political issues that relate to equity, gun violence, racism and identity in general that are very important. But at the end of the day, it’s also uplifting, and, in his mind, he wants for people to find ways to connect with each other.  He’ll say, almost everyone has a memory of their grandparents and little figurines they may have had on view in their home, and when you see all these found objects, we can all relate to some of that.  And also just the general sense of wonder he’s trying to instill in people. He thinks it’s important for us all to take a moment and cultivate our creative sides and just let our imaginations go free.

What was he like to work with as a curator?
It was a highlight of my almost 20 year career. He really opened my eyes to so many different ways of seeing the world. It sounds kind of cheesy, but I’m definitely drinking the Nick Cave Kool-Aid in terms of thinking ways that we connected and how we can elevate each other as people and express ourselves creatively. It’s been an amazing experience and, as the show travels, seeing other people’s responses to it in such a positive way… It’s joy, just sheer joy, that many people feel when they see the work.

Nick Cave: Feat runs June 29 to September 22, 2019 at Glenbow.

Top images: Nick Cave, Soundsuits, 2013, 2016, 2011. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York