The question struck Nick Cave the moment he learned about the death of yet another Black man, Michael Brown, at the hands of police in 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri.
“Is there racism in heaven?,” the artist asked himself in the Chicago studio where he employs several full-time art assistants but often works alone.
He immediately started Until, a room-swallowing installation of kinetic wind spinners that is the first thing you see entering his new mega-show at the Museum of Contemporary Art. From a distance, the spinners shimmer and sparkle like suncatchers you might see in a backyard garden. Up close, they are tear drops, bullets and guns.
“There are things hidden in this kinetic structure. It gives you that ‘Aha’ moment, then hits you in the stomach at the same time,” the artist, sculptor and fashion designer said last week, as an installation crew put the final touches on the show and polished the floors.
Grace with a gut punch – that could well describe Cave himself, who has lived and worked in Chicago for decades, teaches graduate school at the School of the Art Institute and is having his first major career retrospective at age 63. He’s staging a cultural takeover of sorts this summer with the major show downtown at the Museum of Contemporary Art, a three-night series of fashion shows and concerts on the South Side, and projections twice nightly of his art on the side of the Merchandise Mart. He’s even behind a set of new murals in the New York City subway.
“Really a lot of what I’m doing here is reaching outside and beyond the museum setting,” Cave said of his packed summer calendar. “And that has always been part of my practice.”
A former dancer who trained with the influential Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Cave has always moved fluidly between worlds: dazzling the international art community from the stoic Midwest; incorporating found objects from antique malls into high art pieces; imbuing deep social justice themes into elaborate costume sculptures called Soundsuits that are in museum collections worldwide (and featured in Vogue multiple times).
Such an outpouring of affection for the Chicago artist is overdue, said the curator of the MCA retrospective, Naomi Beckwith, who’s now deputy director and Jennifer and David Stockman Chief Curator at the Guggenheim.
“The show is Nick Cave as artist, as choreographer, as educator and community builder,” Beckwith said. “All of that is here.”
As a young artist, Cave at first felt sidelined when a group of his fellow undergraduates from the Kansas City Art Institute decided to pack up and move to New York. “We were all going to go to New York together,” he recalled. “And I couldn’t go because I couldn’t afford to go. And I was like, oh, my God, I’m going to be left behind.”
He stayed with art, and with the Midwest, making his first Soundsuit as a response to the 1991 police beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles. Hundreds more of the towering costumes followed, constructed out of objects and ephemera – a plastic bunny discarded from a Russell Stover factory, pony beads and shiny buttons, pots and pans. The suits, he says now, were a form of “protection” from brutality and trauma.
For his latest art show at the MCA, he’s debuting a 2.0 version of his Soundsuits – still shining, sparkling, and a feat of craftsmanship with their intricate weavings of flowers, textures, beads, buttons. But as he reflected on this country’s latest chapter of police brutality and the murders of Brown in Missouri and George Floyd in Minnesota, his newest iterations began to feature dark new elements: mourning cloths and veils.
On one suit, beads and flowers give way to long, black fringe. The artist’s own tears, possibly? “This is me, trying to sort of operate out of this space of hope and optimism and love and compassion,” he said. “But then the other part is tormented and affected.”
For Cave, who is always pushing boundaries, even the new Soundsuits bump against an inevitable limitation: the fate of most art to be displayed, adored, and then packed into a crate or acquired by a museum or collector.
He’s looking to defy that, too, by unveiling his first Soundsuit-meets-sculpture made entirely of bronze. Cave sees it as a prototype for a major, public monument five or six times its size (the sculpture currently stretches about 8 feet).
The sculpture, A-mal-gam, is a human form sitting on a bench, but in lieu of a head, a large tree sprouts from the shoulders with roosting birds on several branches. The tree limbs were cast in bronze from twigs gathered in Humboldt Park, the birds from figurines found at the antique malls Cave likes to scour with his partner, Bob Faust.
A Chicago fabrication studio cast the bronze, a material that had intimidated the artist for years. A hand reaches behind the sculpture to steady the body, which is all black.
As for the monument’s final resting place, Cave envisions it landing in a park or public setting. Could Chicago get the honors? “Sure,” he said coyly. “Why not?”
Info: Nick Cave’s career retrospective “Forothermore” runs through Oct. 2 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (220 E. Chicago Ave.; https://mcachicago.org/). The fashion performance “The Color Is” at the DuSable Museum of African American History runs for three nights May 21-23. Limited walk-up tickets available (740 E. 56th Pl.; click here for ticket info.)
Cassie Walker Burke is WBEZ’s external editor. Follow @cassiechicago. Manuel Martinez is WBEZ’s photojournalist. Follow him @DenverManuel.