Lost and found

They float in yellow fluid like eerie embryos, rippling and bubbling and threatening to burst through walls that barely contain them. But instead of birth and beginnings, the gloves that Nick Cave (nope, he’s not the Nick Cave of cult band Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds) has fashioned into art represent aging, deterioration and attempts to preserve what’s impossibly fragile — and fast wasting away.

The gloves — cast in resin-filled, glass-enclosed boxes, most of them stacked to form a sort of wall — are forever preserved in exactly the state of decay in which Cave found them, on the streets of Chicago. “The piece really is an extension of a time line, about the whole notion of lost and found [and] trying to hold on to memory,” muses Cave. “And the association with mortality is a critical aspect of the work — the gloves really speak about life and death.” Cave recently lost his younger brother to a rare disease, and countless friends have died of AIDs, giving the exhibit particular resonance.

The ways that time has ravaged the gloves contribute to the peculiarly elegant beauty of this complex, multi-unit work, collectively titled “Truss.” Now on display at Zone one contemporary gallery, it is one of the highlights of New Works by Nick Cave. The exhibit also features fetish-like pieces made from human hair and rusty, discarded farm implements.

Each glove in “Truss” is singularly unforgettable. You’ll find elegant, black-leather numbers; weirdly distorted vinyl gloves that take on vague animal forms; wool gloves so unraveled as to be unrecognizable; an inexplicable, lone oven mitt; sturdy work gloves rotted to a lacy pulp; tiny, vulnerable-looking children’s gloves, stained by dirty snow … nearly 100 gloves in all are on display. And the resin that encases the gloves reacts uniquely with any residue on them; consequently, many of the glass-encased boxes are marked by bubbles (suggesting last gasps for breath), cracks and outright explosions in which fingers literally crash through the boxes, in grasping protrusions.

“They’re almost alive,” says Cave about the gloves.

“[They] speak a lot about the reference to the work force — each glove indicating a different sort of work ethic within our country,” he continues. “I mean, some of the gloves are leather ones that are really mysterious and rich and elegant, and then there are the work gloves that you can see someone really put to hard use.” Cave says that he didn’t set out to turn the somehow mystical single gloves that he frequently saw on the streets into works of art. “It was more accidental than anything else that I started to do the glove pieces,” he observes, explaining that he began gathering them simply because he found them intriguing. “I started collecting them purely out of emotion; they were objects I identified with. And it just all came together one day,” he enthuses.

Cave — a fixture in the American art world and beyond, having worked on various endeavors with such luminaries as Keith Haring, Robert Mapplethorpe and the Alvin Ailey dancers — is perhaps best known for his “Sound Suits.” These multidimensional, performance-art extravaganzas blend elaborate costumes (which Cave makes from found objects and hand-woven fiber) with dance, music and ancient ritual — all performed by Cave. Not bad for a guy who says his artistic sensibility woke up when he took a weaving class at the University of Missouri at the age of 16.

“Paintbrushes,” “Scalped Formalities” and “Lucky Charms” are all series of three-dimensional wall hangings Cave created using human hair (don’t be alarmed by the word “scalped” — he orders the hair from beauty-supply distributors). Many of these works also incorporate discarded farm implements Cave found on his grandparents’ Missouri farm, where he spent summers as a child. And how do his hard-working Midwestern grandparents respond to Cave’s decidedly unusual usage of their worn-out equipment? “They respond to my work in the same way the rest of my family responds to it,” Cave explains. “They’re not really sure what it’s about, but they’re very supportive. And I think that’s all I can really ask for. … They’re really tickled when they come to an exhibition and see these objects that once were theirs, and [are able] to come up to a piece and say, ‘Oh, that used to be so and so.’ I think they like the fact that there is this sort of bridging of the past and present that brings our two lifestyles together. I think that’s the most exciting thing for them — that I would find anything that they have interesting or valuable or be able to find a place within my work for it.”

“Paintbrushes,” not surprisingly, features paintbrush handles from which stream long, luxurious manes of hair, in colors ranging from jetblack to fuchsia to magenta. En masse on the gallery wall, they form an oddly evocative tableau that’s part utilitarian, part pure whimsy.

“Scalped Formalities” and “Lucky Charms” incorporate both hair and the often-unidentifiable, rusty farm equipment, which come together to create fetish-like works evoking some deeply mysterious ritual. Cave speaks lovingly about the works, as if they were his docile (but vaguely haunted) children: “These pieces were extremely effortless because I’m very connected to blending the hard elements with the soft, luxurious material and just allowing the pieces to emerge.” Despite their common themes (“They allow you, like the gloves, to think about nostalgia and the bits and pieces people have cast away,” notes Cave), the works vary widely. Deep-midnight-black, unimaginably sensual, multirowed braids snake through and drape around the ancient equipment, like messengers from an odd netherworld. Shocking-pink tresses inhabit nooks and crannies of long-forgotten tools, obsolete till Cave rescued them.

The “Lucky Charms” series is the most crazily wild and fetish-like of all the hair-and-tools pieces. The series, says Cave, came about “because people … [kept] saying to me, ‘Wow, you’re so lucky to be an artist,’ or ‘You know, I can’t believe the amount of luck you’ve had.’ And I just didn’t connect to that concept — that luck was particularly involved. So I wanted to make a statement by creating these lucky charms that were just extraordinarily ‘out there.’” To say he succeeded is putting it mildly. The most elaborate of the three large charms features a tangle of bright-orange rabbit’s feet; a mass of bizarre, plush, red “devil’s tails”; a sinister-looking tangle of brown hair contained in a disorderly ball by numerous, haphazardly inserted nails; beaded fringes; transparent orbs holding masses of pins and needles; and random shanks of orange, fuchsia and black hair — all hanging from a rusty, chain-like harness.

Cave traces the initial decision to use human hair in his work back to his childhood. His mother worked as a hairstylist while she raised her seven boys. More importantly, however, she saved locks of each of her children’s hair as keepsakes. “She kept a book on each of us, where she wrote down what happened to us every day,” remembers Cave. “And she put locks of our hair in there, too.

“I think, within a lot of cultures, hair is sort of a fetish object that speaks about a spirit of a person, or a lock of hair might represent or stand in for that person,” he continues. “And I was also thinking about hair in terms of contemporary hair, especially within the black community. The options are so amazing with all the hair extensions; you could have no hair today, and tomorrow, you could have long dreds. And I also realized how hair is very important to individuals. It really becomes a very major part of someone’s identity.”

As to his own identity, Cave says his art and life are inextricably intertwined. “The driving force behind my work is simply truth,” he concludes. “I really approach my art from just that place of letting it be what it is. With that, there’s clarity.”

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