SAM Remix: Mardi Gras Extended

On the face of it, Meet Me at the Center of the Earth, the Seattle Art Museum’s exhibit incorporating the works of artist (not the Australian goth crooner) Nick Cave , seems tailor-made for continuing the Mardi Gras party long after Fat Tuesday’s passed (SAM presents the exhibit through June 5).

Cave’s art pieces–Soundsuits, he calls them–are essentially elaborate, fully-wearable works of art that utilize a kaleidoscope of materials. Second-hand bathroom rugs, thrift-store stuffed toys, ceramic bird effigies, and fabrics from all over the world combine to form incredibly detailed works; as fully-wearable as they are eye-popping. When they’re not inspiring quiet awe in their construction, the Soundsuits connect to viewers’ senses with the assertive sensuality of a kiss from hallucinogen-laced lips. But there’s more to these suits than meets the understandably-dazzled eye.

The March 11 SAM Remix party inaugurating Cave’s exhibit did plenty to further the notion of the artist’s work as pure, unbridled party fodder. SAM rolled out all the stops in creating an atmosphere of almost overwhelming festivity. Tubaluba (a New Orleans-style marching band) and legendary DJ Riz Rollins kept the Brotman Forum hopping with melodies and rhythms; revellers brought their own elaborate and sometimes-strange raiments to the mix (a harlequin version of Oliver Hardy, and a young woman in what looked like a Slavic peasant-girl ensemble, were the first to break the dance-floor ice); partygoers created their own art at various stations throughout SAM; and Cornish College dancers donned several of Cave’s Soundsuits and brought them to life, running through the throngs in a spray of loud colors and rustling raffia.

Almost without trying, the SAM Remix party had its aesthetic cake and ate it, too. The bells-and-whistles hubbub of the downstairs bacchanale contrasted favorably with a deliberately sparse gallery space–largely a series of white platforms that resemble fashion runways. The no-frills displays allowed the colors and textures–and meanings–of Cave’s Soundsuits to really pop out.

Cave discussed his inspirations for the suits during several informal gallery talks over the course of the evening. He spoke of the oft-acknowledged inspiration behind his first Soundsuit–a garment of twigs that mirrored the artist’s own fears and anger over the LA riots; and he gave some insight into the method behind his madness: He doesn’t draw, he admitted, but combines his skills in garment construction with a willingness to be “seduced by the textures and colors” of the materials he incorporates.

Some of the garments arrive with rampant whimsy. Even without the gracefully playful movements of dancers inside them, quite a few of Cave’s furry Soundsuits look like Gumby covered in the pelts of psychedelic mammals, and they elicit (intended) smiles and laughter. Other Soundsuits absorb myriad cultural influences to create whole new entities. One white-sequined costume combines Vegas-era Elvis gaudiness with floral patterns that mirror traditional Mexican art, and the elaborate headdress topping the piece looks like it belongs to some Aztec ancient astronaut who’s fallen to Earth.

Art (and its commensurate depth) really is in the eye of the beholder, and Cave’s pieces allow for a multitude of interpretations. The myriad hues and endlessly creative constructions living in the Soundsuits provide ample face-value eye candy, but the works also reveal untold layers upon further scrutiny. One Soundsuit is festooned with a trove of vintage tin toys and spinning tops that’d rouse the envy of any toy collector, but Cave’s bold construction and sensibility go beyond simple recycling. It’s no accident that he weds the ostensibly benign depictions of clowns and small children with casually racist images of black-faced minstrels, all pilfered from toys of the same era. Some unsettling truths, Cave seems to be saying, emerge beyond the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia.