Artist combines sculpture, fashion, performance in Denver

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It’s colorful, whimsical, engaging, multi-sensory, mind-bending …. Internationally acclaimed artist Nick Cave was in Denver to introduce his new exhibit, “Sojourn,” at the Denver Art Museum through Sept. 22.

It’s a major piece of the campus-wide “SPUN,” a multi-faceted look at textiles, tied in with the opening of new textile galleries on the sixth floor of the North Building.

The ebullient Cave led a walk through the exhibit on June 6, offering some insight on how he thinks to assemble an astonishing collection of sculptural works, which often start with a thrift store or flea market find. He continually visits these markets around the world.

To the left of the entrance to the second-floor Anschutz Galleries is a screen showing dancers in Cave’s trademark bodysuits. The entry and first gallery are wallpapered in a bright red design, created with images of the colorful vintage ceramic birds that inhabit Cave’s world. An antique baptismal font is the basis for a sculptural piece, topped with a fantastic branching structure filled with birds, flowers and miscellany.

Next is a long, narrow gallery connected by a wall and canopy of button-covered screen — each button sewn on individually, by hand. A platform runs the length of the gallery, carrying figures in white bodysuits — each different, most covered with buttons. The face on one is made from a burial wreath found at a Paris flea market. “The button is a way of embellishment, a way of adorning the body,” Cave observed.

Craftsmanship is meticulous throughout the exhibit. Cave has about eight assistants who come with the needed skills to the studio in the loft building where he lives, and he contracts with fabricators in the Chicago area who understand his methods and design sense. Materials include fabrics, metals, knickknacks, wood, furniture pieces and much more. “The level of commitment to quality is the way I feel the work has to be handled,” Cave said.

Next, viewers see a huge tonga, a round piece, called “Constellation,” created from black, sparkly bits of sweaters and other garments, sewn together and stretched on a frame. He was thinking of childhood nights on the farm where he and his six brothers would lie on their backs looking at the starry sky.

A departure from the trademark Soundsuits — wearable fabric sculptures — is a series he calls “Rescues.” It opens a “new vocabulary and another form of commitment.” It started with finding a large white ceramic poodle — his assistant Bob Faust saw it — and then they found a regal plaster Doberman. “We’ve got to find a gold sofa,” Cave decided, and tells of asking a shop owner if he could bring his dog in to try it out. That Doberman is in the show with an arched canopy including a chandelier, branches, flowers and more — as are five other dogs and a monkey — all rescued and in protective spaces.

A series of four huge “paintings" appear together, also assemblages of many objects and each backed by an afghan. “I was thinking about fashion, the opulence of life — just glam. Then the more mystical and magical …”

Another installation of multi-colored and textured Soundsuits on a platform led to his comment that “this is my playground.” Each is distinctive and all can be worn. They “evolve in the studio from textiles sought out around the world.”

Finally, the viewer enters “Drive By,” a darkened room with videos of dancers in Soundsuits and images of his often-used crocheted doilies on the floor. (We observed delighted children trying to hop from one to another. This exhibit is a wonderful introduction to art for young ones.)