Nick Cave: Made by Whites for Whites
Jack Shainman Gallery
513 West 20th Street
Runs through October 11, 2014
What’s on view: Art arrangements of racist objects of African-Americans, found at thrift stores and often intended as furniture. This ranges ranges from a black man’s head as a “spittoon” surrounded by generic oil paintings of ships at sea; a piano stool which looks like a black man; a series of overcoats containing gold necklaces, chains, and watches, hung on the walls by outstretched black hands. Throughout, statues of black boys and dogs are surrounded by their own canopies of beads, metal flowers, and ceramic birds, and a Golliwog doll sits atop a pile of folded quilts.
Corinna: I hate to admit this, but thank god there were no soundsuits, that most trotted-out element of Cave’s practice. In general, Made by Whites for Whites was more thoughtful than many of the other shows we saw out in Chelsea this week: Nick Cave’s obsession with collecting historically racist objects and then turning them into “art” objects could have potential. But I still left with a hard question on my mind: What’s to be gained from putting these objects “made by whites for whites” into sometimes absurd, sometimes sentimental, sometimes offensive new configurations?
Whitney: I also left a little surprised by how fucked-up some of these things are, but more or less ambivalent. There is value in simply raiding our grandparents’ drawers, so that very recent history isn’t erased; Cave does start to make a case for that in a string of gold letters which read “The time is always right to do what is right,” a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. One particularly good piece has an outstretched hand stacked with a tall pile of handkerchiefs; it communicates the feeling of serving, begging, and being treated as a piece of furniture all at the same time.
Corinna: The handkerchief (or napkin) work—that was the one work that stuck with me. For better or worse, I thought of Robert Gober’s detached body parts, but less abject and yes, more heavy-handed. Still, it had an emotional draw, about that pesky fact of the unbearable weight of continued servitude over the centuries—though that burden’s as light as a napkin.
Whitney: Yeah. But overall, Cave doesn’t shed much new light on the attitudes that produced these stereotypes; several of them are just offensively stereotyped black boy statues put on a pedestal and surrounded by wreaths. It doesn’t transform them much from the thrift store table, just makes them look expensive.
Paddy: Agreed. The same could be said of the sailboat relief and black bust shelf, “Sea Sick.” The history lesson seems a little more narrative here—we know slaves came on the those ships—but then the arrangement doesn’t seem like it’s motivated by anything other than commercial gallery trends.
Honestly, I want the suits back. We’ve seen a million of them, but they were at least inventive. And they freed him of having to do work about representation and identity, which while valuable, also feels like what’s expected of successful black artists in Chelsea. The whole show reminded me of what Nayland Blake told me a few years ago in an interview, when I asked him about gay marriage.
To me, a progressive idea of a society is one that understands and values difference in and of itself, because what happens otherwise in seeking sameness is that everything gets caught up in a trap of representation. In other words, African Americans are asked to represent African Americanness to the culture as a whole — they’re asked to do the work of discussing race — and the moment they don’t, they become unintelligible. People are like, “Why are you talking about class?” And at the moment the queer people stop talking about sexuality, and start talking about race or about something else, they get pilloried from and within their community for not doing the work of representation.
And that’s the thing that’s valuable about art: It can make representation complex, and it’s the place where we explore ambiguity and complexity within representation. It’s not like people can’t speak, but we have certain ideas, and the moment that’s challenged, people look at [us] like we’re insane. And that’s a really debilitating place because it’s a fixed system representing itself as change.
Corinna: Okay, I guess I see where you’re coming from—the soundsuits are complex, while for some reason these newer works seem to be vague, and less inventive? Anyway, the works look nice—and in the case of the overcoats, perfectly shiny objects for the art fairs. I predict I’ll see those at the fairs, assuming Cave has more than the three at the ready in this show.