The Object of Art

One of many: “Soundsuit” by Nick Cave @ Columbus Museum of Art

It seems fair to assume that a major challenge of putting art on display for public consumption, among many challenges, is that old adage about it taking all types to make a world. And that one person’s type is another person’s anathema. Trash vs. treasure, and all that.

Yet sometimes – okay, oftentimes – despite my intellectual grokking of this reality, it boggles my mind that certain pieces on display ever crossed anyone’s mind as belonging there. In the museum. As “art”.

This phenomenon typically occurs long after I’ve perused the religious paintings from the Renaissance, and glanced through the sculptures of Hindu gods and Buddhist icons, and luxuriated in Impressionism and Post Impressionism, vast landscapes and portraiture and etchings from true masters of their craft.

It happens, almost without fail, once I reach the Postmodern / Contemporary Art wing.

Upon first stepping into those galleries, I can acknowledge those initial works, as not so different from the occasional displays in the other sections of [insert random art museum] that seemed to be intended for an audience of not-me. Just a blip, a change of tastes, a style that doesn’t speak to me.

Yet in the previous eras of art, I can trust that something interesting will inevitably catch my eye as a reward for my patience, my endurance, my willingness to keep going.

Not so, for contemporary.

Not usually.

Usually, I push myself to get to “the end”, where a sea of toilet seats, piles of wood, and framed graph paper awaits, which — a la O’Henry — is both surprising and inevitable. Display upon display of random things found on a street, set down on the floor next to a placard with a pretentious title like “Capitalism”, which are then hailed as artistic accomplishments.

But then came the soundsuit, designed by Nick Cave.

I was fully prepared to not be touched, to not have an emotional experience. Yet there one was — and I was absolutely delighted by it, as evidenced by the rows and rows of photos in my files of this singular piece. For the record, I don’t take shot after shot of contemporary art. It’s not my genre, at all.

So I thought.

A lot of the things that you will find in a Soundsuit are things that we all recognize. You know, how do we look at things that are devalued, discarded, and bring a different kind of relevancy to them.

Nick Cave

After returning from the day trip, I decided to spend some time getting to know him better, which is about as dangerous as walking through that gallery from a psychological standpoint. I mean, how many artists have I been touched by over the years, only to find upon closer examination that I wouldn’t want to touch them with a 10 foot pole?

Here, again, Cave cradled my wispy expectations in the palm of his hand and sent them off with a gentle breeze.

The first myth busted is that this is, in fact, not the Nick and the Bad Seeds Nick. (I sincerely thought he was.) This Nick Cave is a queer black man, who became famous for making wearable art out of discarded things, his endeavor to express and respond to feeling like such a discarded thing.

He’s created upwards of 500 soundsuits (named after the sound they make when they move), starting in 1992 when he was struggling to cope with the Rodney King tragedy and all that it represented. He’s still creating them.

One could argue that his soundsuits are more clothing and costume, meant to be seen as part of a performance, rather than as static sculptures to be sought in the farthest room of the postmodern wing of the CMOA.

And that whole trash vs. treasure thing? Cave has taken that to all new dimensions. These pieces are eye-catching, vibrant, dynamic. They draw the eye and make you want to come closer to inspect every possible angle.

And if I do, lashing out for me is creating this. The Soundsuits hide class, gender, race, and they force you to look at the work without judgment.

Nick Cave

Meanwhile I learned that, like his work, which reviewers are still trying to pin down (fabric art? body sculpture? puppetry?), he also resists being labeled. One interview reveals him feeling less comfortable with “artist”, although slightly more comfortable with “messenger”.

Oh, I like this man. I like him very much.

Almost every article I’ve read on Cave implies that he prefers the focus to not be on him, but rather the experience (ideally a joyful one) his pieces create in the viewer — and perhaps more importantly, the wearer — yet I have to say that my joy came from both getting to know his work and getting to know him, just a little bit better.

So cheers to you, Nick, for restoring my faith in postmodern art galleries and humanity, if only for a little while.

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