Nick Cave: If a Tree Fallsby Alan Gilbert
JACK SHAINMAN GALLERY | NOVEMBER 1 – DECEMBER 22, 2018
Three untitled sculptural installations in Nick Cave’s current exhibition, If a Tree Falls, feature tightly bunched rows of black fiberglass and polyurethane hands reaching up in a gesture that might be a greeting, a sign of solidarity, or a request for help. All three versions are dated 2018, as is the rest of the work contained in Cave’s show, which is spread across both of Jack Shainman’s Chelsea venues. Strewn among the trio’s upraised hands are carved wooden heads with African features, and two of the installations include beaded flowers. Heads, hands, and flowers recur throughout the dual exhibitions, frequently accompanied by the wooden figure of an eagle, an explicit symbol for U.S. history and its political systems. At times, these eagles appear to be attacking the heads in what at best might be an update of the Prometheus myth; at worst, they are merely predators. In other works, they stand vigilant over the scattered yet carefully arranged body parts.
Cave’s hands reaching up from below evoke the desperation of Africans wedged into the holds of slave ships. Yet they are also raised in defiance, which is more explicit in other sculptural assemblages on display: hands and arms clasped together, a clenched fist in front of a radiant metallic disk, or a single finger in pointed warning. Cave has constructed all of the work in If a Tree Falls around a set of motifs that he modulates and redirects toward something hopeful or pessimistic, and an understanding of these pieces can quickly tilt from one to the other, depending on the viewer. What remains consistent throughout is the predominance of blacks and browns as well as a somber weightiness to the overall display with its references to centuries of structural racism in the United States (including the current disproportionate incarceration of African Americans), as well as to the strength, survival, and also the thriving of people of the African diaspora.
At the same time, these works are less overtly about racism in the United States than previous sculptures by Cave that featured mammy figures and lawn jockeys, which the artist collected and then incorporated into assemblages that foregrounded this racist imagery while simultaneously seeking to lift it with filigrees of flowers and birds. The works in If a Tree Falls also lack the shimmering buoyance of the “Soundsuits,” for which Cave is best known. Humanoid in shape, early versions repurposed discarded materials (which Cave associated with the treatment of African Americans) while magically protecting the figure inside them. In comparison, the body parts in If a Tree Falls are broken and exposed as if lying on the ground or in an open grave. Some of the heads are screaming. One rests on a small American flag formed with rows of red, white, and blue shotgun shells; another is placed upright behind the ribbed back of a chair that forms a cage or prison cell; a third is cradled in—or offered up by?—a pair of white, female ceramic hands.
Along with its installation of upraised black hands, the smaller exhibition on 24th Street primarily consists of two series. For the first, Cave had his bent right arm and torso cast in black and bronze from which he has draped garlands of metal tole flowers across the forearms and wrists, with palms held up in supplication—each of the six is titled Arm Peace. The second series features a gramophone’s flared-horn speaker attached to an arm ending in a fist. Also cast in black and bronze, they affirm the contributions African Americans have made to music, song, and speech. The assemblages on 20th Street are more diverse in materials and construction, and they aim their gaze at domestic spaces. Antique furniture and ivory-colored cloth napkins are combined with more heads, hands, and vintage tole flowers, signaling the work slaves did in the plantation house and the undercompensated labor of domestic workers in the domiciles of wealthy whites.
With wood and metal as primary materials, nothing in If a Tree Falls feels ephemeral. If not for their formal ingenuity, the substance of these works—from gramophones to a child’s pink wooden chair—might be a century or more old. As a result, they reference legacies of oppression and resistance that are almost inseparable. Many of the heads remain supine throughout the exhibition—a reference to the drowned, shot, and buried from the slave ships to gun violence on the contemporary streets of Chicago, where Cave lives and works. The exhibition’s title asks: who will hear them? Cave’s work has always sought to listen to these voices. His “Soundsuits” are sculptures that quite literally come to life when worn in performance. The dead continue to carry the weight of history, and If a Tree Falls tends to them, too.
ALAN GILBERT is the author of two books of poetry, The Treatment of Monuments and Late in the Antenna Fields, as well as a collection of essays, articles, and reviews entitled Another Future: Poetry and Art in a Postmodern Twilight. He lives in New York.