Chicago artist Nick Cave was in a surplus shop outside Chicago when he stumbled upon an object that horrified him: the disembodied head of a black man with a label that read, “Spittoon.”
“I was so shocked and just couldn’t believe that it was labeled this way,” recalls Cave. “And this object led me on a crusade to find the most inflammatory, oppressive, despairing objects that I could find around the country.” Cave rented a cargo bay and began to scouting through antique malls and flea markets, buying up racist lawn figurines, carnival toys, and the like. The result is his new exhibit, Made by Whites for Whites, which runs through October 11 at the Jack Shainman Gallery in New York. The show is an act of appropriation: the transforming of racist artifacts into objects of societal critique. Thematically, he’s interested in “consumer racism” and how that affects views of race.
That original head became the centerpiece of a work called Sea Sick, a commentary on the slave trade. In Golden Boy, an old lawn ornament depicting “the lazy black kid” is transformed into a kingly figure upon a throne. In place of the fishing rod, which the original figure would have held, there’s a golden dildo. Here, Cave is questioning stereotypes about black male sexuality. Finally, there’s Sacrifice, which features a cast of Cave’s own hands and arms, offering another head–this one part of an old whack-a-mole type carnival game– to the audience. “Through all the work, I’m implicating the viewer,” explains Cave of the sculpture’s gift-like element. “I’m bringing this menacing head to you.” The goal, according to Cave, is to shake us out of our complacency. “Instead of working toward change we tend to be comfortable in our own skin.”
The pieces–17 in total–will most certainly make you squirm. But that’s the point.