CHICAGO — Before entering Nick Cave’s career-spanning exhibition, Forothermore, curated by Naomi Beckwith, visitors must approach through a kinetic forest of twirling, twinkling wind-spinners hanging throughout the foyer and upper atrium of the Museum of Contemporary Art’s fourth floor. In the first room, a dazzling beaded-mesh wall stands adjacent to a giant wire tondo; in between are a series of riotous Soundsuits on a plinth. With barely a foot in the door, Cave’s aesthetic world is already overwhelming. 

Yet the exhibition’s second room is quiet. Here, “Penny Catcher” (2009) dangles from the wall like a poignant call to remember the depth of American racial violence. Cave has clothed an antique carved wooden head of a Black man with his mouth open (a flea market relic from a carnival toss game) in a formal black suit with white spats that rest on crushed Pepsi cans. This effigy speaks of morbidity, pain, and all the country fairs where White folks did not question the enmity of degradation. 

Nick Cave, “Penny Catcher” (2009), mixed media including vintage coin toss, suit, shoes, and aluminum cans, 74 × 23 × 14 in. Collection of Margo & Robert Roth (photo Debra Brehmer/Hyperallergic)

Cave’s 30-year Chicago-based career has always wandered between foreign lands of materiality. His love of pattern and textiles meets his pleasure in flea market kitsch as he gathers bouquets of buttons, fake fur, beads, plastic flowers, and seemingly anything that sparkles to whorl it into lavish, almost-domestic explosions of exuberance. As a hunter-gatherer and bricoleur, Cave emerges from a Midwestern art history that draws on cultural refuse. His antecedents include Chicago artists such as Gregory Warmack, aka Mr. Imagination, who made bottle cap thrones; Ray Yoshida and Roger Brown (Maxwell Street flea market doyens); and David Philpot, with his embellished giant staffs. He also cites musician George Clinton and his bands Parliament and Funkadelic as an early influence. But Cave has his own enigmatic ways to funnel the funk through histories of adversity. And this is what gives his work a lingering simmer.

The Soundsuits harken back to African art and ritual, in which masks and costumes are activated with dance and music. The colonialist impulse of the Euro-American world, with its desire for acquisition and categorization, bled the life from these objects by displacing them from their contexts and isolating them on museum pedestals. Cave repairs the breach by stirring the ceramic birds, the racist artifacts, the buttons and mass produced twirlers into showers of archival evidence that illuminate how popular culture places a jolly brand of racism into middle-class homes alongside Christmas ornaments and martini glasses. Cave’s tales of vernacular culture resonate with both love and anger. These emotional currents collide most poignantly in his recent fake flower Soundsuits, which first appear as joyful gardens but quickly wilt into funereal shrouds. The artist dedicates these suits to George Floyd, titling them with the  number of minutes it took Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin to strangle him, “8:46” (2021). 

Installation view of entry to Nick Cave: Forothermore at the MCA Chicago. Pictured: “Spinner Forest” (2020), hanging mobiles made from metallic spinning garden ornaments, dimensions variable (courtesy Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, photo Debra Brehmer/Hyperallergic)

Cave, who has taught in the fashion department of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago since 1990, is best known for the Soundsuits but his work more broadly salutes material labor, which — as an artist who can build things, sculpt, and sew — Cave knows well. The large installation “Time and Again” (2000) is a tribute to his grandfather. A wall installation presents his old tools amid religious artifacts, accompanied by a series of metal rims assembled on the floor. Part tomb, part living room, Cave celebrates a man who used his hands, who fixed things and made furniture, who held to his faith. Another kind of memorial, “Truss” (1999) is dedicated to a friend who died of AIDS. Assorted work gloves are sealed in resin the color of amber. Cave again honors the hand, closing the gap between labor and art, vulnerability and protection. 

The notion of “otherness” tucked into the exhibition’s title, Forothermore, is a reminder that otherness implies marginalization, but there can be freedom in that — the freedom to build totems from sock monkeys, to create from and with kitsch, the freedom for marginalized people to transform their armor into fashion. The interlocking fiberglass arms in another installation, “Platform” (2018), offer a dense emotional conclusion to the show. The dark hands link together, forming chains that dangle into a foreground of gramophones, cast male heads, and carved eagles. There’s something about the absolute resilience of those strong arms, linking together, that feels impenetrably triumphant. 

Nick Cave, “Truss,” detail (1999), mixed media including metal, resin and gloves, dimensions variable (courtesy Nick Cave, photo Debra Brehmer/Hyperallergic)

Nick Cave: Forothermore continues at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (220 East Chicago Avenue, Chicago, Illinois) through October 2. The exhibition was curated by Naomi Beckwith, Deputy Director and Jennifer and David Stockman Chief Curator at the Guggenheim Museum. 

Debra Brehmer is a writer and art historian who runs a contemporary gallery called Portrait Society in Milwaukee, WI. She is especially interested in how portraits convey meaning.