One may not think of Nick Cave and ceramics in the same breath. Perhaps sequins come first to mind or fabric. But increasingly ceramics is becoming an anchor in his art, appearing first in his soundsuits but for the last four years increasingly and en masse in his sculptural and other work.
Above image: Nick Cave, Oh Me, Oh My (detail), 2014
A dynamic example is his wallpaper commissioned for his ticketed installation, Sojourn in 2013 at the Denver Museum of Art. The design repeats a pattern created from a photograph of a cluster of birds from his ceramics collection.
Cave’s obsessive collecting (amassing might be a better term) of dime store ceramics—focuses on dogs, birds and flowers, with a particular soft spot for porcelain fruit and Capodimonte imitations. In his sculptural assemblages posed on furniture they provide the choir and some of the divas for these remarkably theatrical constructs that have all the noise and bombast of ambitious operettas.
The other materials, like strings of draped faux plastic crystal from chandeliers, and other tawdry shiny bling, act as the scenery, curtains, proscenium arch and through reflection and refraction, the stage lighting. Occasionally painted plasters of young black boys upstage the ceramics but generally it remains center stage. Remove them and the color reduces and much of the music is gone, songbirds, barking dogs and wind rusting through leaves.
In 2014 three large exhibitions celebrated the ceramic compartments all organized by the Jack Shainman Gallery. Each was accompanied by various events and performances giving a hyperactive artist his perfect match with a hyperactive dealer.
Nick Cave at The School was the inaugural exhibition for Shainman’s new appointment-only space in Kinderhook in Upstate New York, and Made by Whites for Whites and Rescue were shown simultaneously at the dealer’s, too (New York, September 4 – October 11, 2014).
In Rescue the center focus was often on ceramic dogs sitting on furniture within elaborate grottos or dreamlike dens. Gallery documentation points out dogs have historically been associated with loyalty, class, breed, commitment and protection. More recently, the term “dawg” has played a role in hip-hop culture as a moniker for brotherhood, respect and power.
Cave focuses on a single canine that has quite literally been rescued from destruction, very much like a living adopted pet. These dogs become as Shainman says:
“…benevolent guardians of their self-contained worlds, focusing the spotlight on the forgotten and discarded. A Doberman lounges on a gold sofa while a small dog fiercely guards a wishbone on a shoeshine table. The armatures that envelop these animals correspond with large-scale wall based bas reliefs dripping with crystals, beads, and metal flowers.
“Many of the works included in Made by Whites for Whites, have formal similarities to the Rescues in that central found objects are presented within elaborate armatures again built up with items from Cave’s familiar lexicon of ceramics. However, the content is quite different.
“In Made by Whites for Whites, racially charged historical objects anchor the works such as the stereotypical representation of a black man with dark skin, big red lips, and white eyes in Untitled, 2014, or the Golliwog-costumed mannequin in King of the Hill, 2014. These were once commonplace caricatures that infantilized and dehumanized the African American population.”
This project began when Cave found a container at a flea market shaped like the head of a black man and labeled ‘Spittoon.’ He was shocked and began, “to rehabilitate the problematic loaded object and find a place of reverence and empowerment through reuse.” These remnants of another time hold a strange place in the public consciousness. They are too important to be discarded but too painful to be widely displayed.
“They persist at a distance across the country in the cultural gray area of flea markets and antique stores, potently saturating the American present. Cave treats these items with compassion while forcing the viewer to confront this problematic genre of mass-produced and widely disseminated collectibles. Cave’s oeuvre while remaining inextricably linked to the reclaiming of found objects that has always been at the core of his work.”
Writing in ARTnews Alfred MacAdam touched on the complexity the exhibitions presented:
“Made by Whites for Whites” was concerned with black history and the inception of the slave trade, which was documented by a huge mixed-media work Sea Sick (2014), combining paintings of sailing ships blithely plying the waves with the head of a black man, originally a humidor for storing cigars made from tobacco harvested by slaves. Cave’s title is ironic: in English-speaking America, the slave was made by whites for whites, first as agricultural laborers but then in myriad roles, ranging from bathroom attendant to object: a humidor, a golliwog, or the slave-boy figurine holding his master’s horse. The black man was transmuted into the white man’s creation. Cave brilliantly inverts the process, making black art out of the collected wreckage of racist artifacts.”
Generally the critical response to these three great shows was disappointingly meager, and when addressed by white critics like myself, was uncomfortable with much uttering of trite PC banalities about race. In fact the shows, triggered by their loaded titles, Made by Whites for Whites and Rescue, are profound in the way they touched on race, its branding, inheritances of guilt, outrage and pain. The armatures and their draping are delicately wrought and the careful placement of stuff is precious and nuanced. The sculptures manage to be both refined while the individual components are drawn from kitsch and carnival vulgarity, as richly operatic as it is seditious.
Garth Clark is the Chief Editor of CFile.