New York

Nick Cave: Made by Whites for Whites, at Jack Shainman Gallery

In Made by Whites for Whites, Nick Cave’s new show at Jack Shainman Gallery, the artist continues to exhibit works characteristic of his making process, in which the reclamation of found objects functions as a catalyst. “It’s always the object that provides me the impulse,” he said in a recent talk at the gallery. “It’s always one thing that sort of sets it up. It has to have a pulse. It also has to have multiple reads, that I can sort of turn it upside-down.” In this case, Cave is working directly with a collection of racially charged historical artifacts that he came across at flea markets.

Nick Cave. Golden Boy, 2014. Mixed media including concrete garden ornament, vintage high chair, dildo, and holiday candles. © Nick Cave. Photo by James Prinz Photography. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

Nick Cave. Golden Boy, 2014; mixed media including concrete garden ornament, vintage high chair, dildo, and holiday candles. © Nick Cave. Photo by James Prinz Photography. Courtesy of the Artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Among them are a spittoon shaped like a black man’s head, a golliwog-costumed mannequin, a Topsy-Turvy doll that allowed children to flip between a black servant boy and his white counterpart, and several sculptures of small black slave boys. Each object owes its “pulse” in part to its loaded history and uneasy presence in contemporary space. At the core of this series is a kind of reconciliation with these relics’ very existence. How can they be shown in public life without behaving like painful reiterations of a violent and oppressive history? How can they be destroyed or hidden when they are an important societal record that should not be forgotten?

Cave’s underlying strategy in approaching this problem is primarily one of arrangement and assemblage. He utilizes the objects as central anchors in sculptural frameworks and armatures loaded with vintage decoration, kitsch, antiques, and other discarded everyday items from many Americans’ common past. Each piece develops a unique mix and complication of messages and associations. The aesthetic formal charms of the compositions enable moments of nostalgia and trauma to commingle.

Nick Cave. Sea Sick, 2014.  Mixed media including oil paintings, ceramic container, cast hands, and plastic ship.  © Nick Cave  Photo by James Prinz Photography. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

Nick Cave. Sea Sick, 2014; mixed media including oil paintings, ceramic container, cast hands, and plastic ship. © Nick Cave. Photo by James Prinz Photography. Courtesy of the Artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

Sea Sick is a wall installation with three columns of found sailboat paintings, each similarly featuring a tall ship bobbing along an ocean skyline. The central column of paintings is topped with a large gilded relief sculpture of a ship, two gilded hands, and a container for tobacco shaped like a caricature of a black man’s head. The paintings and ship sculpture have the familiar and innocuous air of thrift-store décor—opulent and cheap, epic and tacky all at the same time. The tobacco container in this visual context, however, quickly calls forth narratives of the slave trade and middle passage. It also epitomizes, in and of itself, a history of the dehumanization and debasement of blacks into objects. The interplay between all of these elements sets up a heady ambivalence, actually creating space for more contemplation because of the impossibility of easy digestibility.

Nick Cave. Star Power, 2014.
 Mixed media including wooden fist, vintage stools, and star quilt
. © Nick Cave. Photo by James Prinz Photography.  Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

Nick Cave. Star Power, 2014; mixed media including wooden fist, vintage stools, and star quilt
. © Nick Cave. Photo by James Prinz Photography. Courtesy of the Artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Some works in the show call up more recent cultural mythologies pervading black representation. Golden Boy features a sculpture of a young black child sitting in a vintage high chair adorned with Christmas lights. The fishing pole that had been held in his hands is replaced with a large golden dildo. Here Cave isn’t just mining the ephemera of a distant past; he is connecting it to the persistent, denigrating, hyper-sexualized stereotypes of the worth of the black male body that are very much in our present. Star Power, on the other hand, points to a moment of black empowerment in visual culture. The memory of the iconic salute by athletes at the 1968 Olympics echoes throughout this installation: a sculpture of a Black Power fist sits atop a stack of stools set against a large, quilted, multicolor star. Even among the weight and rawness of many of the works in the show, this gesture remains capable of being uplifting.

The overall ambivalence fomented by this exhibition has a productive nature, creating space for viewers to stay longer with the troubling nature of the objects and experience vacillations of meaning. No clean or clear conclusions are prescribed. Rather, Cave sets a stage for an ongoing arbitration—one that his works implore.

Made by Whites for Whites runs through October 11 at Jack Shainman Gallery. 

Share