Artist Nick Cave Takes Chicago With His First Retrospective

Jaime E. Love

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You would be forgiven for thinking that the calm, confident man juggling the mayhem of the photo shoot for this story was a fashion designer used to running a major house. Holding a safety pin between his teeth, he ​calls ​for a ​“​smoky eye, with some magenta”​ here ​and “a shoe, not a boot” there; helps​ ​a model squeeze her head through the neck of a delicately woven top;​ and later zhuzhes ​another model’s hair into a faux-hawk before placing him in a rakish pose ​as the photographer clicks away.

But all that vision and creative direction ​is coming from ​the artist Nick Cave, who, beginning this month, is being honored across his adopted city of Chicago with several solo museum shows, and is producing an array of vibrant performances that pay tribute to the music and dance forms he’s long loved. Cave’s first career-spanning retrospective, “Forothermore,” opens at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (MCA) on May 14, and will travel to the Guggenheim Museum in New York in November. Starting May 21, there will be a series of “performative fashion experiences,” titled “The Color Is,” at the DuSable Museum of African American History; then the DuSable will premiere, on August 25, a fashion-oriented exhibition by the same name that includes a selection of the garments and accessories Cave and his collaborators are creating for performers to wear. Finally, in Chicago’s River North neighborhood, the public art program Art on theMART will screen Cave’s 2011 film, Drive-By, remixed with new footage, on the facade of a commercial building.

Model César F. Benavente Oblitas wears a tunic, pants, and bag by Jack Cave.

Facility studio manager Llulia Rodriguez wears a top by Nick Cave, made of plastic plates printed with a Soundsuit-inspired pattern by Bob Faust.

All these events add up to more than just a celebration of the 63-year-old artist. They are also a coming-out of sorts for the two most important men in his life: Jack Cave, his brother; and Bob Faust, his romantic partner of more than a decade, and his creative partner for years before that. Faust collaborates with Cave on many elements of the artist’s exhibitions and performances, from books to textiles to exhibition design; Jack, after decades in graphic design, has recently returned to fashion and product design. “To be able to create these amazing platforms for me to work with my partner and my brother, with so much love, compassion, and openness between us, is really what it’s about,” Cave says. “It’s powerful. And for the work to move us all forward as a society, it’s better and much more fun when you have all that.”

Faust, 55, welcomes me on the morning of the W shoot at Facility, a 1920s factory he and Cave turned into expansive studios and living quarters for themselves and Faust’s daughter, Lulu, now 19. In a separate area, there is a work-live space for Jack, 64. At Cave’s request, the shoot will include a mix of professional models and Chicagoans who have made this year’s exhibitions and performances possible: There’s MCA’s director, Madeleine Grynsztejn; the DuSable’s curator, Danny Dunson; choreographer William Gill; and a dozen other friends, family members, art fabricators, and museum benefactors.

Standing, from left: Artist Lucy Slivinski, fashion design student Phoebe Heng, Jack Cave’s assistant Jay Fernandez, collector Larry Fields, metal sculptor Elizabeth Fiersten, photographer James Prinz, designer and model Isaac Couch, Room 1520 owner and director Celeste Campise Hamilton, musician Andrew Jacob Bertholf, model César F. Benavente Oblitas, collector Marilyn Fields, metal sculptor Ross Fiersten, DuSable curator Danny Dunson, choreographer William Gill, collector and MCA benefactor Jennifer Litowitz. Seated, from left: Musician Kahil El’Zabar, Jack Cave collaborator Noah Taylor, Lulu Faust, Jack Cave, Nick Cave, Bob Faust (holding Bam-Bam), Pritzker Director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago Madeleine Grynsztejn, executive Linda Johnson Rice, School of the Art Institute of Chicago professor Romi Crawford, director Claude-Aline Miller, collector Alec Litowitz.

Model Maryam Jama wears a button-encrusted top and skirt by Nick Cave; stylist’s own boots.

As everyone starts to trickle in, Nick, Jack, and Bob are still hard at work across a warren of workspaces, aided by nearly 20 assistants who are putting the finishing touches on new work for the MCA exhibition and the garments for the programs at the DuSable. In one room, a group weaves one of Cave’s large, round wall works known as tondos. This one is covered with colored wires in pinks, purples, greens, and golds that catch the light and suggest the movement of long grasses in the wind. Behind the wires is a beaded pattern evoking a bull’s-eye, a common motif in Cave’s work that he says represents “brain scans of youth who live in areas where gun violence and catastrophic weather patterns collide.”

The tondo, the largest he’s ever made, at 12 feet in diameter, will be one of two in the MCA exhibition, shown alongside seminal examples of Cave’s work, including his famous and influential Soundsuits: wearable, full-body armor he has fashioned from all manner of natural, handmade, and commercially produced materials, from vibrantly colored synthetic hair extensions to bead-encrusted crochet. Cave created his first Soundsuits in the wake of the LAPD beating of Rodney King, in 1991, as an investigation into garments that could hide race, class, and gender. Speak Louder—a piece included in the MCA show—comprises seven connected, button-laden Soundsuits with heads shaped like sousaphone-esque bells, which, as the exhibition’s curator, Naomi Beckwith, puts it, “evoke music, and yet the bells are covered and muted, so that the title implies a contradiction, maybe even a command.” Cave explains: “It’s the implication of what’s not being said,” namely how “we, as people of color, have been in this outcry for a long time around police, and the injustice around that level of brutality. At the end of the day, my practice lies within art as a vehicle for change, and I’ve always been very responsible about my role and how I can help shift and make things more inclusive.”

Nick and Jack Cave examine the fit of one of Jack’s tops on Isaac Couch.

From left: Nick, wearing an Homme Plissé Issey Miyake top, and Jack, wearing a Balenciaga turtleneck and pants, at Facility.

Cave often turns the performances he produces into collaborations between institutions and communities. The MCA is just steps from the retail corridor known as the Magnificent Mile, on Chicago’s affluent North Side, and has a revenue of more than seven times that of the DuSable, which is sited on the city’s predominantly Black South Side and was formerly known as the Ebony Museum of Negro History and Art. Dunson, the DuSable curator, distinguishes the two institutions this way: “MCA’s lens is contemporary art, but art is just one of the lenses the DuSable uses to look specifically at the histories of Black people, including in the community where we’re located, and to meet the needs of and uplift its people.”

Making garments for the DuSable performances and exhibition offered Nick and Jack a natural opportunity to work together. “We’ve been talking about fashion for decades,” Cave says. Growing up in the 1960s and ’70s in central Missouri, smack between Kansas City and St. Louis, Nick and Jack stood out from their four younger brothers, who were “regular guys,” as Cave puts it. “We wished we had a sister, so we could dress her,” Jack jokes. Their mother, Sharron, brought Nick and Jack to the storied Ebony Fashion Fair when it came to Missouri. “That’s how the Black community was able to connect with couture: through Ebony magazine and this Ebony fashion show that traveled around America,” Cave says. As a teenager, Jack made clothes for a local store; in the 1990s, he designed clothing that was sold at 30 boutiques around the country. Both brothers attended the Kansas City Art Institute, where they collaborated on their first fashion performance, which featured an all-Black local drill team called the Marching Cobras. (“That was a spectacle, honey!” Cave says.) After a stint designing the windows of the Kansas City outpost of Macy’s, Nick chose the fine art route, earning an MFA from Cranbrook Academy of Art in 1989. Both brothers currently teach in the fashion department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

From top: Nathan Hoyle (a studio assistant) and Jasper Drummond (Nick Cave’s former graduate student) wear his crocheted and beaded tops, with pants featuring patterns designed by Bob Faust, incorporating motifs from Cave’s work.

Back at Facility, Jack brings his creations from his studio to his brother’s just before the W shoot. “I am doing my own thing, and he is doing his own thing,” Jack says. “It’s funny—I can see similarities without our sitting down and having this big conversation about it.” Faust and the family dog, Bam-Bam, look on as Jack considers his garments alongside his brother’s. Jack’s are mostly woven in gray and black wool against clear, white, and traffic cone orange silicone, vinyl, and PVC. The open weave recalls the granny-style crochet Cave often uses in his Soundsuits, but in Jack’s designs, the effect is Knights of the Round Table chain mail meets 1980s punk. “It comes off as a protective shield,” Jack says, holding a tunic up to the midday light, “but with a sensitivity about it that I think comes from the transparency.” That preoccupation with protection is more palpable in the oversize bags Jack has designed, with handles that fit the hand like brass knuckles—a fighting tool to help the wearer literally pack a punch. Jack’s bags brandish messages like i matter motherfucker, delicately laser-cut in gray wool. “There was a shift when I saw what happened with George Floyd,” he says. “I had never stood in the light, my light, as an African-American.”

For the performance aspect of “The Color Is,” which will feature choreography by William Gill and 80 people in head-to-toe looks designed by the brothers, a key source of inspiration is the Emerald City scene from The Wiz, the 1978 Motown musical film based on The Wizard of Oz. “That whole procession is so fabulous, stimulating, magical,” Cave says. He is thrilled that Patti LaBelle and Nona Hendryx, of the band Labelle, best known for their 1974 hit “Lady Marmalade,” have signed on to be part of the first performance. Labelle was the most “critical,” Cave says, of the cadre of funk musicians, including George Clinton, the Brides of Funkenstein, and Bootsy Collins, who were important to his development as an artist. “Before I came out, as a young person, I was rebellious through dress,” Cave recalls. When he first saw Labelle, as a teen, “I finally realized that I’m not alone: There is a universe that I can relate to, and that set the foundation for this level of expression,” he says, gesturing to the hive of creative activity around him.

Nick Cave (standing) checks in with the team of studio assistants who are finalizing work for the two exhibitions.

The exuberance that he found through Labelle’s music early in his life, and later, in the 1980s, through dancing to the house music that emerged at Chicago’s underground clubs—“House music saved my fucking life!” Cave is fond of saying—is still of paramount importance to Cave. Although the catalog Faust designed for the MCA exhibition is bookended by a long list of BIPOC killed by police, Beckwith stresses that Cave doesn’t want “violence, absence, loss, and mourning” to consume him or his art practice. “Much of Nick’s work is born of trauma,” Beckwith tells me. “But the reaction to trauma isn’t just death, but often, an insistence on more life, and more beauty.” So, she continues, “there are ways in which the excess of the celebration is actually the antidote to the huge traumatic violence,” and “oftentimes it does come in the form of the party, the processional, the dancing, the music.”

From left: Lulu Faust, in a Celine jacket and sneakers; Jack Cave, in a Balenciaga turtleneck and pants; Nick Cave, in an Homme Plissé Issey Miyake top; and Bob Faust.

Cave, Faust, and Jack seat themselves amid the models, collaborators, and supporters they have invited. Cave has decided to adorn the group with some of the welded metal armatures that structure his Soundsuits. It’s been months or, in some cases, years since many of them have been in a crowd of fellow creatives like this. Everyone’s keyed up, antsy. A photographer’s assistant calls out for music, and after some doing, the sounds of Labelle come from a tiny speaker. Shoulders soften. People lean into one another. Hips sway. Cave smiles at his big brother, and then finds Faust’s fingers with his own. Almost imperceptibly, the group begins to groove.

Hair and makeup by Candace Michelle for Pat McGrath Labs. Models: Isaac Couch, Jasper Alan Drummond, Nathan Hoyle, Maryam Jama at One Chicago, César F. Benavente Oblitas, Llulia Rodriguez. Lighting technician: Fallou Seck; photo assistant: John Ruzich; fashion assistant: Tahler Johnson; hair and makeup assistant: Cashay Page.

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