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Artist Nick Cave Puts Racism on Display

A new exhibition turns infuriating historical ‘black objects’ into learning experiences.

For artist Nick Cave, the idea of a social consciousness has always been at the crux of his work, specifically exploring what it means to be an African American male in the 21st century. In his two-part solo exhibition currently showing at Jack Shainman’s 20th and 24th Street Galleries in New York City, Cave examines the history of trauma and racism, the ideas of loyalty and trust, the objectification of the black male, and the notion of violence manifested into material objects.

Though both exhibitions, Rescue and Made for Whites by Whites, delve into themes that are congruent with previous Cave works, they are more overtly extrapolated and developed in his most recent displays. In Rescue, the found ceramic objects presented are indeed rescued ceramic dogs, seated on sofas and encased in elaborate cages that are fluent in the visual vocabulary of Cave, that of beads, ceramic birds, metal flora, and crystal prisms. The iconography imparted by the image of the dog is one of class and social status, breeding and the notion of superiority, faithfulness, and protection. Rescue delicately inspects the idea of servitude and the accompanying stigma within the black community, while also referencing the advent of the appropriation of the word “dawg” within the context of pop and hip-hop culture as a signifier of brotherhood and trust.

While Rescue may speak in hushed, poetic tones, Made by Whites for Whites is an unapologetic study of the blatant racism contained within certain material objects from the 19th and 20th centuries. During a routine flea market visit, Cave stumbled upon an enraging piece of ephemera—a stereotypical racist rendering of a black man, with extremely dark skin, bright white eyes, and saturated red lips. While this in and of itself was incensing, the functionality of the piece was what sent Cave over the edge. “The face was labeled ‘spittoon,’” noted Cave in a recent interview. “It sent me into a fury, I was like, ‘What?’” This set Cave on a quest to find similar objects across the states. “I sought to find the most inflammatory, obscene, offensive objects I could find,” he said. The offensive commodities Cave discovered form the center of the works in the installation. Repurposed and transformed by the artist, the objects’ meaning shifts from racially-charged memorabilia to education. Cave does not attempt to tone down the objects and their intrinsically racist propaganda, nor does he eliminate the culpability of the viewer in this history of violence. Rather, he forces the viewer to see, examine, and absorb these visuals and all that is contained within them.

The arc of Cave’s career is vast, delving into different mediums, aesthetics, and forms of production; however, the narrative remains largely the same, one of the reclamation of agency in the black narrative. In addition to the installations at Jack Shainman, Cave will be featured in a major retrospective at the St. Louis Museum of Art in October, an exhibition at Michigan’s Cranbrook Art Museum in 2015, and his much-anticipated major exhibition of new work at Boston’s Mass MoCA in 2016.

Rescue and Made for Whites by Whites are currently on view at Jack Shainman through October 11, 2014.

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