As the title suggests, Nick Cave: Epitome is a carefully selected array of works showcased as exemplary pieces of his oeuvre. The book is heavy with a hardcover and thick, glossy pages—by volume alone, it may seem intimidating. But upon further looking and reading, Epitome is simply enthralling, a beautiful object that captures the essence of Cave’s work in image and text.
Nick Cave: Epitome
In cataloguing Cave’s work, the book is divided into four series: the Soundsuits, HEARD, Rescue, and Made by Whites for Whites, all documented in stunning photographs. These are accompanied by three main texts: “Out of a Riot Comes a Dream: The Public and Private Iterations of Nick Cave,” by Nato Thompson, “The Right to the City: Urban Appropriation in Nick Cave’s Work,” by Elvira Dyangani Ose, and an interview with Andrew Bolton. Thompson’s and Ose’s essays provide comprehensive socio-historical contextual backdrops for Cave’s work, while Bolton’s interview offers the book’s only direct words from the artist himself.
Flipping through the pages is an engulfing experience: beautiful photographs are periodically supplemented by texts placing Cave’s work within a larger framework of contemporary influences and relevance. Contrary to those first impressions, Epitome is quite inviting: the work is vibrant, and there is lots of it—perhaps even too much. Little explanatory text accompanies the reproductions of Cave’s empire, allowing viewers to come to their own conclusions while gracing the extensive photographic catalogue—the book’s most impressive feature. Cave’s work is neither singular in subject, media, nor influences spanning from Rio’s Carnival and East London’s Pearly Kings and Queens for the Soundsuits. Even within the texts, numerous stimuli are listed; the work is layered, providing greater opportunity for readers to connect with the work on a non-prescribed personal level.
Epitome is a beautiful object, providing a valuable demonstration of Cave’s many talents, but it merits slow consideration; its breathless inclusion of four distinct bodies of work leaves the book feeling oversaturated. This is not merely a result of Cave’s pulsating rainbow color palette, although certainly his prodigiousness has presented the book’s editors with a formidable task: one of Cave’s largest accomplishments is his creation of an impressive oeuvre, which is distinctly, and obviously his own. Cave works in a visual language that is easily recognizable: a niche production technique I am coining “sculptural collage,” which fetishizes the handmade: the work is made by hand with collectible handmade objects. Cave’s sculptural collages are odes to the found object; he started building his first Twig Soundsuit in 1992 with a discarded branch found in a park, and the Rescue series began after he spotted a ceramic Doberman at a flea market. For Cave, the object is a holder of memory; it carries its own history, which the artist reappropriates in his own work. This practice, developed during his childhood, is part of the artist’s personal narrative. In Bolton’s interview, Cave recalls customizing hand-me-downs as the youngest of several brothers; breathing new life into vintage manufactured objects by implanting them into new performative or sculptural frameworks is second nature to Cave.
The work, in other words, is distinct and identifiable, but this book is a testament to how it can suffer from excessive photographic reproductions. Cave’s skill risks getting lost in the abundance of bright colors, sparkle, and shine. Cave’s “sculptural collage” is excessive by nature, but the work needs space to breathe, and it isn’t given much within these pages. The viewer is in danger of being overindulged: the Soundsuits are nearly too easy to wolf down. Details of different works are essential pauses to combat this gluttony; moreover, they remind the viewer that Cave’s work can be valued even on the page, solely in its immaculate intricacy of craft and beyond the in-person experience or performance of which readers are deprived. Different angles, as well as the rare shots of a work during a performance or in a different setting, provide welcomed breaks.
The works presented here can be divided into two. His Soundsuits and HEARD are performative, while the pieces from Rescue and Made by Whites for Whites are sculptural. The performative works originate from Cave’s profession as a dancer. Thompson explains that this work is both physically and conceptually loaded. “Counter-intuitive as it might seem,” his essay begins, “the fantastic beauty and bewildering sensibilities of Nick Cave’s Soundsuits were born in reaction to stark brutality.” Cave’s work comes from haunting personal experience. Rodney King’s 1991 assault, captured on video, marks Cave’s eureka moment in his art practice. The incident sparked several reactions in Cave about his identity as an African-American within the urban community and his growing desire for protection; he made his first Twig Soundsuit a year later. The question of identity and protection arose as a personal issue, but applies to universal concerns and practices on a wider scale. The HEARD performances and Soundsuits live in an exotic mythology borrowing from tribal subcultures, but are created as tools of social interaction and change. HEARD is about provoking social change in the urban landscape through unity against the status quo. The Soundsuits are about the relation of the individual within the community. They are armor, shields that protect their wearers and hide their genders, sexualities, and racial identities. The Soundsuits exist on a dividing line separating hidden mysteries from eye-catching, tell-all flamboyance.
Cave’s Soundsuits are introduced as beautiful, intriguing art objects alive in an alternate reality. They are photographed in a stark white space, maximizing their splendor. Not unlike a green screen, readers see exotic characters, static or in motion, part of a wider narrative, but devoid of context clues. Thompson’s text and Bolton’s interview shed light on the moral agenda of the Soundsuits. Cave defines his role as a messenger. By creating metaphorical staged happenings in an urban jungle, he instigates a model environment for change. Although visually appealing, the white-ground Soundsuits photographs suggest neutrality and universality: uncommon characteristics in today’s urban milieus. Cave’s work is flattened to a sculptural costume, to a dynamic photograph, to a page in a book; the Soundsuits and HEARD’s dynamics of social mutiny are lost in translation.
This collapse into a state of stagnation is not an issue for the second body of work: sculptures from Rescue and Made by Whites for Whites, Cave’s most recent Chelsea exhibitions at Jack Shainman gallery. Apart from a few rectangular wall pieces resembling 3D paintings, the Rescue pieces comprise of a ceramic dog figure on a settee under an opulent arch. A majestic Doberman figure inspired Cave’s series: a role reversal between dogs and their housemasters adding onto the art historical tradition of the dog as a symbol of loyalty. The work on display at Made by Whites for Whites is large and bold in iconography, with a vintage artifact of Black memorabilia surrounded by objects from Cave’s familiar collection of flea market finds. The prefabricated collectible items sculpturally collaged in excess recall the Soundsuits, but unlike them, this newer work is more explicitly racially and historically charged. The Soundsuits are subtler in personality; they are about the identity of the wearer rather than a race, and the romanticism of exoticism acts as their saving grace. Made by Whites for Whites is high on shock value. Placing a spotlight on worn collectibles created out of racism successfully creates a sense of unease. Unlike the Soundsuits however, they do not provide a temporary solution for a critical issue, but rather spread awareness of it. They are paramount in function, but are not as directly engaged with our urban reality as their protective counterparts. These pieces exist within the white cube model, but not beyond. Nonetheless, Made by Whites for Whites remains relevant: the tattered appearance of Cave’s reappropriated flea market finds is misleading; Cave is tackling an issue of the present day, and not of a nostalgic past. His works have never been more significant as benchmarks of racial brutality. The deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner render the protective shield-like aspect of the Soundsuits disturbing; their relevance moves toward urgency and necessity amid these instances of horrifying police brutality.
Cave’s world, existing on the borderline between fashion, performance, and fine art, is multi-faceted—“counter-intuitive” according to Thompson; it is playful and grave, but remains cohesive in its visual language. Nick Cave: Epitome offers an outpouring of gorgeous visual material and presents interesting cross-disciplinary links drawing from the personal and the socio (not so)-historical. The book is informative, yummy, and dynamic, but with four series of works, it is also over-glutted; moreover, the Soundsuits appear much more frequently than the other series, which emerge outshone. Nick Cave: Epitome is a beautiful, confident object, but could be more successful subdivided into two volumes, compiled by media, or even four separate catalogues, one for each autonomous series.