Sometimes it feels like we’ve become a nation squatting in the ruins of our past. Living off scrounged philosophy and canned food discovered in wrecked basements, warming ourselves over the flickering fires of liberties ignited long ago and not quite extinguished. There’s so much stuff scattered everywhere, garish and contradictory, trash pushed up into enormous cliffs and walls. It takes focused attention to make any sense of it, and an act of rare genius to render the rubble into art.
I almost missed the Nick Cave show at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Why go? Well, I’d seen one of the artist’s quirky Soundsuits — a sequined costume topped with a kind of exaggerated pope’s mitre — at the Whitney in New York a couple years back. He’s a Chicago artist, and while I only recently realized he is a different person than the Australian singer of the same name, I try to keep track of Chicago artists. I also noticed friends on Facebook posting photos of hundreds of delicate foil spinners when the show opened in mid-May.
I’ve long passed the get-to-the-show-when-it-opens phase of my life, and am now firmly trudging through the try-to-see-it-before-it-closes part. With the Cave show closing Oct. 2, the canyon floor was hurtling up at me.
Still, not exactly a pitchfork at the back prodding me downtown. Perhaps key, my wife also wanted to go, and we paired a visit to the MCA Sunday with hitting the last day of the Chicago Jazz Fest. I’d point out how downtown was jammed with throngs of happy tourists, but that’s becoming cliche. Still, if only all those patriots edgily fingering their weapons downstate and projecting dire thoughts at a city they last visited in 1992 could muster the courage of a 4-year-old girl in a tutu to walk down Michigan Avenue. It might be an education for them. Or might not, given the current genius to see, not what’s in front of you, but what’s between your ears, projected upon the world like a slideshow.
I’m glad we went. Because while the colorful Soundsuits, dripping with beads and buttons and bling, are weird and wry and engaging, what really struck me is how Cave takes ephemera, the kitsch you see sold on a blanket on city streets, and assembles it into tableaus of significance.
Look at “Untitled,” his 2018 work, a few dozen wooden souvenir heads of Black people, set on a table. Add an American eagle that looks like it’s deciding which eye to pluck out next, and suddenly you’ve got something meaningful.
The show presents a series of dramatic Cave bronzes, juxtaposing body parts with found objects. Look at this opened hand surrounded by a U of vintage beaded flowers. You instantly see that the hand is positioned as if holding a gun, except the gun isn’t there. The payoff is the title of the 2016 work, “Unarmed.” Not only beautiful, but with a clear message. It’s a piece of art you can talk about, and should.
One of the most enticing works in the show is the bronze “A-mal-gam,” a life-size man sitting casually on a chair, his head and shoulders sprouting branches of a tree bedecked in birds — birds being another favorite Cave motif. I saw it and thought, “Put a few of these where the Columbus statues used to be: Problem solved,” and was gratified to read the placard and learn that is exactly the idea of the work, created last year.
“Statues that honor people who perpetuated colonialism and slavery are a common sight in American cities,” it begins. “In recent years many have been removed, whether through the action of Black Lives Matter or local governments. These removals leave behind empty platforms — and questions about how to use them. Cave responds to these questions with a proposal; a ‘tree of life’ in the form of his first large-scale bronze human figure. . . . A-mal-gam is a call to replace historical monuments to racism and hatred with ones that look toward the future and honor the amalgamation of diverse cultures and communities.”
Works for me. Those terrified of the future, particularly if it involves people who look and think differently than they do, no doubt will disagree.