In an inspired piece of programming, the Institute of Contemporary Art this winter has paired the costume artist and sculptor Nick Cave with the animator, sculptor, and set designer William Kentridge. Both shows opened yesterday.
Cave is African-American and based in Chicago. Kentridge is South African — white and Jewish — and based in Johannesburg.
The two shows, or so it would seem, have nothing in common. Except that . . . hold on: What is that unfamiliar, anarchic emotion I perceive bubbling to the surface of both? Could it be . . . is it . . . euphoria? Exuberance? Joy?
Kentridge is an intellectual heavyweight. His five-screen installation, “The Refusal of Time,” shimmies and gyrates with ideas, from relativity and string theory to the history of African colonization and the very nature of art-making. (My review will appear in the Sunday Globe). It reveals a great artist working at the peak of his powers. His work, in somber black and white, chimes with our image of the artist himself, who appears in his films (and in public), dressed in his trademark black pants and white shirt.
Cave is, shall we say, a little different. He trained in modern dance, studied fiber textiles, and these days directs the fashion graduate program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. His work is deliriously colorful, dementedly dizzy, and, quite honestly, it stonewalls thought. I look at it, love it, and don’t have a single idea about it. (Unless “Wow!” qualifies as an idea.)
But none of this means Cave’s works are not great.
If you follow fashion or have kept half an eye on contemporary art over the past couple of decades, the Soundsuits for which Cave is best known don’t come entirely out of the blue.
Displayed at the ICA like frozen mannequins on a catwalk, these extraordinary creations — part costume, part sculpture — conjure up memories of the perverse outfits designed for the performance artist Leigh Bowery by his partner Nicola Bateman.
They are reminiscent, too, of the extravagant hybrid concoctions of the British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare; the South African textile and performance artist Nicholas Hlobo; and, in fashion, the anatomy-altering inventions of fashion designers like Rei Kawakubo, Yohji Yamamoto, and Junya Watanabe (recently seen at the Peabody Essex Museum in “Future Beauty: Avant-Garde Japanese Fashion”).
Further blurring the lines between fashion and art, Cave has established a business, SoundSuitShop. According to its website, the shop aims “to share the art of Nick Cave with a wider audience than his exhibitions can possibly reach.” Its products, it continues, are “carefully sourced and designed to outperform other products in its category.”
But what category would that be, exactly?
Somehow, and despite all their proliferating associations, Cave’s Soundsuits feel unique. They are the product of a brilliant eye, an intoxicating feeling for pattern, texture, and color, and a spirit of invention given free rein. They constantly surprise, like the outcomes of that old Surrealist game, Exquisite Corpse, but transposed to three dimensions.
Slender legs support elongated torsos and sprout heads that are now like a bursting sunflower, now like a futuristic robot, and now like a surfboard wrapped in a tea cozy. They teem with color, and with a variety of materials – from shiny sequins to crocheted fabric, fur, beads, and children’s toys – that induces pure delight.
In a second gallery, Cave’s nonfigurative sculptures and his single, multipanel wall relief bask in a delirium of second-hand kitsch. Colorful ceramic birds populate canopies of gilded foliage draped with spider webs of bead necklaces, all of it adorned with metal flowers and crystals. It’s an orgy of bad taste, a bomb going off in the sedate living room of bourgeois decorum.
And like I said, it makes a great complement to the Kentridge show. On the surface (and even at certain depths), the two shows feel like yin and yang, each the antithesis of the other. But between them is lots of mulchy common ground.
Both artists delight in a homespun aesthetic of improvised fabrication. Kentridge conceived his cast of silhouette characters made from kitchen implements while putting on puppet shows for his children’s birthdays. Cave, too, improvises and assembles. He has a penchant for discarded objects from flea markets and antique stores.
Both, moreover, are intensely interested in performance, and the points where movement, dance, and theater intersect with sculpture and assemblage. Kentridge’s “The Refusal of Time” includes footage of dancers in costumes that drastically alter the body’s appearance and shape. Cave, meanwhile, is known for performances that involve the donning of his Soundsuits.
Finally, both artists make work that tries to break the shackles of good taste and facility, and to leak back into an idea of the social that escapes hierarchies and oppression. The gray and gritty look of Kentridge’s work would seem to match the sobriety of his political concerns. But Cave’s work, too, for all its color and decorative profusion, has its roots in a political awakening.
His first Soundsuit, which was made from twigs, came as a response to the police beatings of Rodney King. Reflecting on the incident, Cave wondered, as a confused and dismayed black man, what it might look like to be so “scary,” so “larger-than-life,” that 10 cops were required to bring you down.
The Soundsuit was born. And it lives on in this small but joyous show at the Institute of Contemporary Art.
Sebastian Smee can be reached at email@example.com.