Art review: Nick Cave at Fowler Museum

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I imagine that wearing a dance costume designed and fabricated by Chicago artist Nick Cave would be like transforming oneself from a ragpicker into royalty. You wouldn’t leave behind the earthy spirit of making do with whatever you can scavenge, which is what ragpickers do. Instead, you would add a splendid layer of magnificent, finely wrought self-regard to workaday awareness.

Think: Every man a Sun King.

Thirty-five costumes by Cave are on view in an engaging traveling show at the UCLA Fowler Museum, trimmed somewhat from its debut last summer at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Trained as an Alvin Ailey dancer, the artist has taught for nearly 20 years in the department of fashion design at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The works in “Nick Cave: Meet Me at the Center of the Earth” were made in the last half-dozen years or so, the exuberant complexity of their fabrication revealing a brisk level of productivity.


African ceremonial costumes are a self-evident starting point. So is the wild playfulness and showy elaboration of Mardi Gras and carnival, not to mention everything from glittery Haitian flags to chunky Southeast Asian embroidery.

Given dressed mannequins lined up on low platforms, the museum’s installation will also put you in mind of a high-fashion runway. That’s appropriate: Each garment is precisely stitched (or otherwise fabricated) for bodily fit — typically bodysuits or tights beneath long-sleeved robes—and every one is carefully designed for maximum theatrical impact.

Who knew recycled potholders could be so glamorous?

Or crocheted doilies from Grandma’s parlor, buttons fit for a busker, striped sweaters, socks freshly pulled from the laundry, previously ugly slouch hats, cheap ceramic birds, garish embroidery of gigantic flowers and flowing human hair dyed in impossible hues -- purple, lime green, chrome yellow, pink and electric blue. Cave uses them all, plus a seemingly endless supply of sequins, beads and seed pearls.

In each costume, at least one of these castoff materials has been accumulated in considerable numbers as the basis of the garment. (Repetition is a standard motif of 1960s Pop and Minimalist art.) The collection is assembled in a shape that usually does two things: makes the figure larger than life while simultaneously obliterating the wearer’s face.

Rarely is there a sharp delineation between head and torso (imagine Gumby, the green-clay animation figure), so the costume functions almost as if it were a body mask. Cave gets an elemental quality from this design. The costumed dancer — and dance is here meant as any form of self-conscious choreography or movement, whether formal or informal — is offered not as a person but as a humanoid presence.

Individual personality is erased, replaced by the unique formal qualities of the scavenged materials. These are amplified through scale. No labels reveal the height of the costumes, nor do the photo captions in the profusely illustrated, very readable catalog say how big they are; but I’d guess most are at least 8 feet tall. You look up to them.


In this way it’s their castoff and salvaged goods that are animated, celebrated and sanctified, rather than the particular person wearing them. The costumes themselves are monumental, not the people hidden inside them. Cave’s work acknowledges the exalted role occupied by fashion in contemporary society, but he reveals it to be a tribal phenomenon available to anyone who cares to partake of the social ritual.

That’s the most appealing feature of Cave’s art — its moral core. His work underscores the transforming possibility inherent in society’s most easily overlooked rejects.

Wackiness also has its charms, and there’s plenty of that here.

One suit is topped by a metal armature, somewhat like an open-framework birdcage, which functions as a display stand for a knickknack collection of painted ceramic birds. (Tigers stitched into the body suit lend a disconcerting cat-and-the-canary air.) Another has a big Chinese abacus affixed to the front of the helmet-like headpiece, resulting in a Darth Vader-esque face guard. The costumes made from dyed human hair appear visually blurred, thanks to the Cousin Itt material; their otherwise crisp, abstract patterns — stripes, polka dots, an asymmetrical target — look strangely out of focus.

Gumby, Cousin Itt, Darth Vader -- these familiar pop culture references are as pungent as the more esoteric ethnographic ones. But it’s worth a side trip into the Fowler’s nearby permanent collection galleries for some of those general aesthetic sources: a New Caledonian mask with a towering beehive hairdo; a Yombe “power figure” from the Congo, its torso covered with strands of knotted cloth; or, a lavish “textile” wall-hanging by Ghanaian artist El Anatsui, made from aluminum liquor-bottle caps and neck rings wired together.

The only time the exhibition stumbles is in the inclusion of two wall works and a sculptural installation. They’re nowhere near as convincing as the costumes. Edging toward conventional painting and sculpture doesn’t do Cave much good.

Made from found, sequined garments stitched together over circular stretchers 8 feet in diameter, the wall works are pale echoes of abstract and exotic “paintings” from the 1970s and 1980s by such artists as Lucas Samaras and Peter Alexander, who also used sewn strips of glittery found cloth to bedevil cultural assumptions about art, or painted variants by Joyce Kozloff and Miriam Shapiro. The large installation, composed of homemade toy beavers making a big dam from “logs” of rolled-up quilts, describes the virtues of industriousness in a wincingly cute and earnest way. It’s Mike Kelley Lite.


The costumes, by contrast, are a delight. Since they are meant to be worn, using movement and sound to amplify their visual impact, spend some time with the video at the show’s entry. Nine large-scale photographs by James Prinz, which show Cave demonstrating the costumes’ possibilities, are installed in the corridor outside. They’ll make you wish you could try one on for size.

-- Christopher Knight

‘Nick Cave: Meet Me at the Center of the Earth,’ UCLA Fowler Museum, North Campus, (310) 825-4361, through May 30. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays. Free.