Over the weekend, I visited an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art called “Nick Cave: Forothermore,” an intense survey that spans the long career of Cave (b. 1959), a Black gay artist who lives in the city.
“His work is grounded not only in extraordinary aesthetic experimentation, but key ethical commitments; reworking found materials, making art that is accessible to all, embracing collaboration and community, and incorporating both personal and political events into his work,” a description of the exhibit explains.
“The title Forothermore combines ‘forevermore’ and ‘other,’” the explanation adds. “The term reflects Cave’s lifelong commitment to creating space for those who feel marginalized in society — especially queer people, the working class, and people of color. Cave helps us imagine a more inclusive future together, one where everyone feels at home in their body and in the world.”
I immediately notice some contradictions in this exhibit centered on a Black queer artist whose work sublimely critiques “our culture of excess,” according to another descriptor on the wall of the exhibit.
Kenneth C. Griffin, a billionaire and the richest man in Illinois — and thus perhaps the state’s foremost symbol of American excess — is listed as the exhibition’s “lead individual sponsor.”
The more than 300-page coffee table book accompanying the solo exhibition, which I purchased in the bookstore for roughly $70 (taxes included), is encased in plastic wrap that protects the book’s plastic slip-on cover — another contradiction between the critique of capitalism and consumerism within Cave’s work and the museum’s decadent presentation. You can also buy everything from umbrellas to tote bags and hoodies that have been beautifully stamped with Nick Cave’s signature aesthetic.
I notice other contradictions, such as the mostly Black and Brown museum attendants standing guard around the art exhibit. They are not intrusive and often pleasant. One wonders, though, if they are paid a living wage and treated well and seen, not only by the museum-goers, but, more importantly, by the institution.
The presence of these mostly Black and Brown and young attendants (most appeared to be in their 20s) evoked Fred Wilson’s 1991 installation at the Whitney Museum called “Guarded View.” The work comprises four mannequins made of wood, steel and fabric, dressed in the uniforms of museum guards.
“When you’re a guard, you are, kind of, on display like everything else,” Wilson once said of his work. “You’re standing there, you’re silent, people walk by you, but unlike the artwork, you are invisible. And that tension between the two is what really intrigued me and really made me want to make the work.”
I notice a similar tension in Cave’s luminous work and how its meaning and significance changes with the viewer. As a Black man who wants to be honest, I can’t help but notice the contradictions between the work and its critique, and the institutional world which the work and the critique inhabits.
But I also believe that, inherent in Cave’s work is the possibility of escape, of breaking free of this elite capture, a term deployed by Nigerian-American philosopher Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò to describe “when the advantaged few steer resources and institutions that could serve the many toward their own narrower interests and aims.”
In the big coffee table book’s first essay, Naomi Beckwith — the Guggenheim’s chief curator and a Black woman who had previously been chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art — examines an early work by Cave called “Mobile Construction Trees,” a work from 2000 that the artist made while he was in residency in North Carolina.
“Cave arrived at the residency without any supplies or materials, already determined to make art with what we could find in the area,” Beckwith writes.
In “Mobile Construction Trees,” each “tree” is a “handcrafted metal slab, each about 18 inches in width, 4 inches in depth, and with varying heights from about 5 to 9 feet.” Cave found the scrap wood and metal at a nearby farm and crafted the artwork as a “tribute to his grandfathers, industrious and resourceful men who worked primarily with their hands.”
As an art scholar, Beckwith teases connections between Cave and a variety of other American artists who experimented masterfully in weathering, smashing, hammering, shaping and welding reclaimed materials. But Beckwith locates a closer source in fellow Chicago artist Richard Hunt.
Since the 1950s, Hunt (b. 1935), has “created welded-steel sculptures from scrap metal and whose ‘Farmer’s Dream’ (1980) in particular was inspired by memories of the agricultural machinery Hunt saw on his relatives’ farm in southern Illinois,” Beckwith writes.
“Both artists’ experience of agricultural landscapes influenced their toggling between organic forms and inorganic materials.”
Hunt’s “Farmer’s Dream” looks strikingly similar to the work of his teacher and colleague, Geraldine McCullough. McCullough’s “Phoenix,” a “250-pound welded steel and copper abstraction,” won the “top sculpture award at the 159th annual exhibition of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts,” according to an article that appeared in the June 1964 issue of Ebony.
McCollough, a longtime Oak Parker and Dominican University professor, also created “Phoenix Rising,” a 10-foot sculpture made of copper and polyester resin that was dedicated in 1977 and is located in Maywood. That sculpture is similar to the one that won the exhibition, which was called the George D. Widener Memorial Gold Medal.
Another sculpture by McCollough, “Pathfinder,” a 12-foot brass and copper work, is positioned right outside Oak Park Village Hall.
McCollough, who died in 2008 at 91, told Ebony in 1964 that the Phoenix is a mythological bird that burned itself alive before re-emerging in even better form.
“It seemed to me,” McCollough said, “that the Negro, crushed so long under the weight of oppression, is now re-born and soaring toward complete freedom. That was the inspiration for ‘Phoenix,’ but actually, what I tried to express in the piece was something more universal … that universal struggle of peoples and things, their wrestling with adversity, their eventual triumph and the perfection that results from struggle.”
If you visit “Forothermore,” which runs at the MCA through Oct. 2, I suggest you let McCollough’s commentary foreground your experience of looking.