A soft whir fills the Cyclorama, the big, round sky-lit space in Boston’s South End built in 1884 to host a 360-degree painting of the Battle of Gettysburg. That’s not the only thing filling it, and its builders would no doubt be a little taken aback by its current resident: dense riots of inflatable cartoon-character chaos, bashed together helter-skelter in a maelstrom of color and form. They hunker down on the floor or float high above, like a psychedelic storm cloud heavy with dismembered childhood memories. One of them dangles dead-center, a bulky clutch of candy-colored nightmares, looming over all.
If the apocalypse were designed by the Rankin/Bass animation studio — stiff stop-motion reindeer and Santa Clauses, a memorably toothless yeti — it might look something like this. But don’t worry. For all its density, the whole thing is as light as air. That’s Nick Cave, responsible for this particularly glorious mess, in short: Light versus dark, order versus chaos, inside versus out.
You might know his name from Mass MoCA a couple of years ago, where “Until,” his career survey, took up the biggest of that massive museum’s ample spaces. Or from his “Sound Suits,” radically gorgeous and festooned with every manner of baroque needlework and decoration. It was the work that made him famous. The suits’ spectacular sheen was leavened with dark purpose: He made his first in the aftermath of the Rodney King race riots in LA, when he felt under threat simply for being black. The suits, which conceal every inch of their wearers, were designed as armor against prejudice, meeting terror with beauty.
It was always an uneasy balance, a tension that made his work transcend simple wonder. Here, that much remains. “Augment,” Cave calls it, is a departure from the work that made his name, though the parallels aren’t hard to find. A new commission for Now + There, a Boston-based public art nonprofit, “Augment” seduces — bright colors! Cute bunnies! — then repels. Looking up, I saw a torrent of childhood memories torn apart and roughly re-sutured: Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer clenched in the jaws of, well, Jaws. The Easter Bunny short a limb or two thanks to a skeletal T. Rex.
It’s funny, but not, which is of course the point. Cave made a project of collecting inflatable holiday lawn figures — Uncle Sam, Rudolph, spiders and ghouls, bunnies and Easter eggs — and went about their gleeful dissection. Reconstructing them as a kind of Frankenstein’s monster of holiday angst felt like a natural thing.
“We all go into the holidays with great expectations, and it so often becomes a catastrophe,” Cave said.
But that’s not all of it by half. With Now + There, Cave chose to work with more than a dozen community agencies in Uphams Corner, an impoverished sector of Dorchester surrounded by the competing pressures of crime and intensifying commercial development.
Cave’s team of local artists held collage workshops with schoolkids, residents at senior centers, and everyone in between, eventually knitting the hundreds of works that came out of them together into a fluid composite image that will wrap an abandoned building at the neighborhood’s heart.
In September, Cave’s cartoon monsters will parade from the toney South End into Uphams Corner on the back of a flatbed truck, shining all the spotlight Cave can muster on a community more used to being ignored. Cave hopes “that it brings about a sense of community and partnership,” he said. “Boston seems so separated. What can I do that unifies and brings people together?”
Cave says that with “Augment,” he’s positioning his practice around positivity and happiness, a radical gesture in an increasingly bleak time. What struck me most about it, though, was the rough chaos of it all — the fragmented forms in violent tangles, my eye hunting to make sense where none could be found.
It felt like the virtual world we all grapple with every day — hurricanes of images, torrents of information, recaptured in bits and pieces and reassembled on the fly. “Augment,” to me, felt less like joy than a rainbow of enveloping anxiety, skirting the edge of panic. Cave allowed that “Augment” could be read “as a form of protest,” and to me that rings more true. In these trying times, a gesture of positivity that feels at least partly like an assault seems about right.
Speaking of positive, the installation of “Augment” inside the Cyclorama coincided with another work being built in the courtyard out front, by a young Boston-based artist named Shaka Dendy. His work, a grid of brightly-colored milk crates fastened together with zip-ties, contained hand-painted basketballs, most deflated beyond use.
Dendy, working with the Boston Center for the Arts in the same building, spent time in the local Boys & Girls Clubs in Roxbury, trading their beat-up balls for new ones he donated as part of the project. “I wanted to find a way to give something back that was tangible,” he said. “Not ‘thanks, here’s a sculpture and some cool ideas.’ ”
He held an art-making day with the kids, encouraging them to leave their own mark on the spent balls to be installed in his piece. It made them collaborators, and served Dendy’s greater purpose.
With its sharp angles and workaday materials Dendy’s piece, called “Gestures of Incompleteness,” apes Minimalism, the 1960s movement to reduce art to pure form. Where they emptied meaning out, Dendy loads it in. Using their language — you’ll catch echoes of Sol Lewitt and his right-angled grids, or Donald Judd’s shimmering boxes —Dendy writes a different story, of local people and community life. He said he’d be happy if people sat on it to eat their lunches. It doesn’t get less precious than that.
By the time I left, Cave and Dendy had crossed paths inside, the senior superstar thoroughly engaged with the young aspirant. Cave’s work these days might be about happiness, mindful as he is that it’s a complicated pursuit. But there was nothing so fraught about this exchange. That much, at least, was pure joy.
NICK CAVE: AUGMENT At the Cyclorama, Boston Center for the Arts, 551 Tremont St., through Aug. 22, then Aug. 27 to Sept. 3, and then Sept. 12 to 13. The parade to Uphams Corner takes place Sept. 14 at 11 a.m. The building wrap will remain at 555 Columbia Ave., Dorchester, through April 2020. 617-426-5000, www.nowandthere.org
SHAKA DENDY: GESTURES OF INCOMPLETENESS At the Boston Center for the Arts, 551 Tremont St., through Aug. 23. 617-426-5000, www.bcaonline.org