In retrospect: Nick Cave

Guest contributor / Two Coats Intern Betty Lou Starnes / In his current exhibition “Made for Whites by Whites” at Jack Shainman Gallery, Nick Cave applies his keen eye for color to items some might rather have erased from the United States’ tainted racial history. By parodying objects and images
that have traditionally caricatured blacks in the service of white racism, Cave subverts traditional racist iconography so as to
empower its original targets–namely, African-Americans.

[Image at top: Nick Cave installation view at Jack Shainman Gallery]

Nick Cave, Golden Boy, Waiting, 2014
, mixed media including concrete garden ornament, vintage high chair, holiday candles and dildo, 85 x 54 x 48inches. © Nick Cave. Images by James Prinz Photography courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, NYC.

Cave builds on his
“Rescue” series motif of ceramic birds and beaded armatures that cocoon
effigies of animals to adorn some of his collected statuary. Trench coats presumptively used by black thieves to sell swag are adorned with gilded
interiors, and retrogressively racist garden statues are webbed with
flowers. The idea is to comically highlight and ultimately condemn
whites’ viciously condescending instrumentalization of these objects. Particularly
innovative are the figures in which Cave uses a detached head, arm or
fist as the central axis in the arrangement. In line with sentimental 19th-century abolitionist 
literature, these pieces suggest that the culture of minstrel shows and pickaninny
dolls encouraged the physical abuse of African
Americans.

Nick Cave, Star Power, 2014
, mixed media including wooden fist, vintage stools, and star quilt
, 84 1/4 x 88 5/8 x 1 7/8 inches. © Nick Cave

Aware of the vandalistic abuse that these dolls and bodies often suffered, and the perpetuation of the myth that blacks couldn’t feel or like reptiles could re-grow an
amputated or mutilated appendage, Cave has accorded them defensive strength by arranging them in ways that convey subjectivity and self-ownership. More assertively, fists thrust forward into the sky recall the emblem of black power from the late 20th century.

Cave’s investigation into whites’ treatment of black bodies as mere objects is learned as well as vivid. And the installation is impeccable, guiding viewers without didactically instructing them, and cultivating their acute awareness that the objects embedded in the work are not merely anachronistic curiosities but also symbols of a long period of subjugation that must be both remembered and buried.

 Nick Cave, installation view.

“Nick Cave: Made for Whites by Whites,” Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, NY.
September 4 – October 11, 2014 

Related posts:
Art and race: Through A Lens Darkly, Nick Cave and Jordan Casteel
Obamas check out 30 Americans

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Two Coats of Paint is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution – Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. To use content beyond the scope of this license, permission is required.

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