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Artist Nick Cave's gorgeous creations are a must-see at the DAM

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Last week, the second iteration of the Denver Biennial of the Americas came and went, but its two main exhibits will continue through the beginning of September. Draft Urbanism is made up of architectural intrusions downtown and billboards throughout the city; First Draft, in the McNichols Building, is dominated by artists working in the region.

Interestingly, the Denver Art Museum has been mounting its own biennials over the past several years, though that's not what they're called.

The first, which was titled Embrace, was an ambitious installation show meant to demonstrate how art-friendly the Hamilton Building is, despite what so many people were saying at the time. It was overseen by then-deputy director Christoph Heinrich. Two years later, with Heinrich as the director, the theme of Marvelous Mud was ceramics. This time, though, the display wasn't limited to the Modern and Contemporary department, but was extended to several other areas within the museum. All told, there were eight interrelated exhibits on view simultaneously. And this summer, the DAM has mounted Spun: Adventures in Textiles, an over-the-top exhibition comprising a dozen shows, all focused on the theme of fiber.


Nick Cave

Through September 22 at the Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway, 720-865-5000, denverartmuseum.org.

I've already reviewed some key aspects of Spun, including Bruce Price, which is made up of the Denver artist's works on paper; Cover Story, which inaugurates curator Alice Zrebiec's new textile gallery; and Red, White and Bold, showcasing historic Navajo blankets selected by curator Nancy Blomberg. Now I'm taking a look at the pièce de résistanceNick Cave: Sojourn — which, though it's billed apart from the rest of Spun, is nonetheless a component, being connected by theme.

The exhibit (with William Morrow serving as host curator) is installed in the dramatic volumes of the Anschutz Gallery, on level two of the Hamilton. For Cave, a Chicago artist, Sojourn has two meanings. First, the show itself is a sojourn because it will only be here for a time; second, it represents a specific period in the artist's stylistic development, so metaphorically, it's also a sojourn in Cave's career. And while there is plenty of childlike wonder to behold — crocheted doilies, bird figurines, sock monkeys — the flamboyantly gorgeous installation in the steady progression of connected rooms creates what the artist sees as a "sacred space." Looking at the work and its surroundings, it's hard to argue with that observation.

Though I had run through the show just before it opened, I went again and looked more carefully last week; I also had the distinct pleasure of having Cave himself as my tour guide. We were joined by Bob Faust, who designed this show and manages Cave's studio — which must be something like a factory — and William Gill, the choreographer who works with the artist.

The initial space is partly wallpapered, not unlike what Rex Ray did a few years ago at MCA Denver. It is also evocative of the stencil work of the late Louis Sullivan. A pioneer of modern architecture, Sullivan spent his career in Chicago, where Cave lives. The wallpaper, which looks abstract but actually comprises images of bird figures from Cave's sculptures, was designed by Faust. In the center of the space is a found baptismal font surmounted by a bower of steel rods accented with strings of beads and little ceramic birds. This is an exemplar of Cave's latest interest: elaborate and funky assemblages that lie somewhere between sculpture and installation. I'll talk more about these in a minute.

On one wall, the word "sojourn" has been cut through, providing glimpses of Cave's signature Soundsuits in the space around the corner. Entering this next room, I was taken aback by how beautiful it all was. A low white plinth runs down the center, on which a series of black plastic male mannequins dressed in Soundsuits have been lined up like models on a runway. On the walls around them, and in canopies overhead, are panels of gauzy black fabric accented by thousands of white buttons attached in an all-over pattern. Some of the Soundsuits are also covered in buttons, one of Cave's favorite materials.

I asked Cave about the meaning of the Soundsuits beyond the obvious connections to costumes, high fashion and tribal or ceremonial dress, and his answer surprised me. Moved by the Rodney King incident in the early 1990s, Cave wanted to express himself in a protest piece, and so, although he had been doing paintings, he created a wearable sculpture. He drilled and sewed hundreds of twigs onto a suit. When he finished it, he realized that he could wear it, and when he did, it made noise as he moved, like a suit of armor. (In addition to studying visual art at the Kansas City Art Institute and Cranbrook Academy, Cave studied dance with the Kansas City branch of Alvin Ailey's troupe.)

Cave told me about the meaning of the Soundsuits only a couple of days after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin. "It's come full circle with Trayvon Martin," says Cave, going on to explain how he himself, as an African-American man in the predominantly white art world, feels unsafe at times and worries that he might be profiled the way King and Martin were. "People who know me would say that Nick would never start any trouble, but what would the people who don't know me say?"

Understanding this political aspect puts an entirely new and somber slant on the seemingly joyful Soundsuits, many of which were newly created for Sojourn. After telling me about the association he has with King and Martin, Cave mentioned that he was giving up doing the Soundsuits, with the ones in Sojourn being among the last for a while.

Up next is a connecting space anchored by a gigantic tondo, "Constellation," which has a splashy abstract-expressionist composition carried out in glittery materials. Cave explained that the piece was made by cutting up and repurposing beaded and sequined garments he found in thrift shops. His imaginative use of found and ready-made objects and fabric is remarkably deft, and through it, he's converting the labor expended to originally make them into his own.

In a large space beyond are a series of impressive sculptures that are conceptually related to the other work, but formally quite distinct. These sculptures, most simply titled "Sculpture," follow a kind of formula. A virtually life-sized ceramic or plaster dog is placed on a chair or settee. Above and enveloping the dog is a dense network of metal rods reminiscent of branches, onto which small ceramic birds or flowers have been mounted on little stands. The whole arching structure is adorned with dense skeins of beaded chains bought by the yard through the fashion industry.

If the Soundsuits refer broadly to a gay sensibility in their glitziness and their undeniable phallic character (right down to Cave's use of male mannequins), these sculptures metaphorically scream with the association. They're like little vignettes from a drag queen's piss-elegant apartment, and they led me to think of Cave as the RuPaul of installation and performance art — which made him laugh.

Another gallery full of Soundsuits precedes the show's final passage, which is made up of projected videos, a few of which record dancers in Soundsuits, while others show changing views of crocheted doilies. There have also been live performances associated with Sojourn, including Heard•DAM, which was drafted into the Biennial and performed for the finale.

The Cave show is midway through its run, so if you haven't seen it, you really need to.

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