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“I spend a lot of time at flea markets,” said artist Nick Cave at a recent visit to the St. Louis Art Museum. “I’ll fly to Washington State, rent a van and stop at flea markets on my way back across the country. I don’t know what I’m looking for.”

He knows it when he finds it, though. The objects that he finds — buttons, children’s toys, plastic beaded baskets, lots and lots of crocheted pot holders and some rather alarming big fluffy bunnies — go into Cave’s distinctive art. An exhibition of his work is now on display at the art museum through March 8.

Cave (not to be confused with the Australian rocker of the same name) was born 60 years ago in Fulton, Mo. He attributes his affinity for found objects to his upbringing: poor, in a large family headed by a single mother.

He received a bachelor of fine arts from the Kansas City Art Institute, where he learned to sew, and studied dance through the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater company. He earned his master’s degree from Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan. Today, he teaches at the Art Institute of Chicago and makes his own art at his studio on Chicago’s South Side. He lives on the third floor of his building and works on the second with eight assistants. The first floor is devoted to storing his supplies.

Cave is best known for his “Soundsuits,” costume-shaped sculptures that show a clear connection to African art, as well as the New Orleans Mardi Gras tradition. The sculptures are whimsical, but their meaning is much deeper.

Galleries 249 and 250 in the East Building are filled with the suits; some of them can be viewed from all sides. On the walls are tondos, circular hangings like slices of the sky, made of satin-finished formal dresses and marked out with sequins and brocades.

Some of Cave’s Soundsuits (the name comes from the swishes, jingles and clatters they make when moved) are intended to be worn; a video installation called “Drive-by,” in Gallery 301, shows whirling, bounding, pogo-stick-riding dancers in suits made of colored raffia, hair and miscellaneous objects, some looking like pink Yeti, some like cheerful monsters with the power of perpetual motion.

The shapes of Soundsuits on display are set forth in chicken wire. Their “alternate skins” are a kind of armor, disguising such considerations as race and gender, and eliminating prejudicial prejudgment.

The first Soundsuit was built of twigs, in response to the beating of Rodney King in 1991 by Los Angeles police officers. Since then, Cave has constructed hundreds of the sculptures, built of anything that comes to hand and appeals to him.

When Cave discovers something he thinks will work on a Soundsuit, “I take the object and put it around the body until I locate it. The found is critical” to the art.

A suit may be covered with buttons or with plastic baskets topped off by one of those bunnies. Plastic mesh serves as the fabric to hold all that mass. One sculpture has a menagerie of sock monkeys and small fabric objects that Cave calls “burial mounds.” It weighs 40 pounds, and its meaning is “otherness,” he said. “It’s an homage to a being of sorts.”

A hot-pad suit is topped by a wire frame with outcroppings that Cave calls “tentacles.” From the tentacles hang metal tops, toys, noisemakers and banks that are small globes of the world, shaped into a three-dimensional form.

This suit was finished at the museum, with the addition of an unusual wooden hanger on the back that drapes more fabric down the suit. “It takes time to establish a relationship with a piece,” Cave said. “It’s about the shedding of the existing being. I’m interested in spirit and myth, and the space around the body.”

One of Cave’s largest and most distinctive works is “Speak Louder,” seven connected figures whose suits are covered in black shell buttons, with shapes like the bells of tubas where their heads should be, facing in different directions. It was born, said Cave, “when I was thinking about (black) youth crime in Chicago. I’m living in a city where violence is extreme, yet voices aren’t being heard.”

“Speak Louder” recalls both a funeral procession, bound by shared grief, and the Dixieland bands of New Orleans and Savannah that play dirges on their way to the graveyard and jazz on the way back. But an all-tuba band will never manage that distinctive peal of joy breaking through sorrow, and the weight of the shroud-like draperies speaks of the burden carried by these mourners.

The exhibition was co-curated by Nichole Bridges, associate curator in the Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, and Tricia Paik, former associate curator of contemporary art. Bridges selected most of the pieces in the exhibition, which also features a stand-alone Soundsuit “intervention” amid the African masks in Gallery 102.

“I wanted to bring a together a collection that talked about the breadth of the work,” Cave said. The oldest piece “is probably six years old; the newest one is from today. It’s a nice survey for the art.”

One of the aspects of the exhibition that pleased Cave the most was the opportunity to show off his work to a very special constituency: his own extended Missouri family.

“I have a lot of cousins and relatives in the area that have never, ever seen my work in its purest form,” he said. “This is for them and for the whole community here.”


‘Currents 109: Nick Cave’

When Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Friday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; closed Monday. Runs through March 8.

Where • St. Louis Art Museum, 1 Fine Arts Drive, Forest Park

How much • Free

More info • 314-721-0073; slam.org

Sarah Bryan Miller is the classical music critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch; she has also written on a variety of other topics.