Object of the Week: Soundsuit

October 11 is National Coming Out Day, and to celebrate, we are featuring a work created by queer artist Nick Cave, now on view at SAM. SAM’s collection includes many queer artists: from Marsden Hartley, Mickalene Thomas, and Francis Bacon to Paul Cadmus, Nan Goldin, and Catherine Opie. It is important to SAM that we acknowledge and discuss all artists’ identities as part of the conversations we have about their work. While not all of the queer artists in our collection were out during their careers, and not all created works biographically address queerness, sexuality or gender identity, the visibility of queer artists is an important counter to decades of erasure and exclusion, especially for BIPOC LGBTQIA+ artists. Being seen and being yourself is what coming out day is all about, and Nick Cave’s work represents this beautifully.

Cave began making his Soundsuits after seeing the video of Rodney King, a Black man, brutally beaten by police in 1991. He started by collecting sticks in a local park and stitched them together to create a suit that, when worn, allowed him to completely disappear. Once inside, the suit hid his Blackness, his gender, and other facets of his identity to give way to other modes of being that protected him from the outside world and, in many ways, gave him the freedom to move about and perform.

The Soundsuit by Cave in SAM’s collection represents many elements inherent to the process of realizing one’s sexuality, gender identity, and coming out: artifice, performance, and reinvention.

Let’s tackle these elements one at a time.

Artifice: Cave’s Soundsuits are works of art, but they also draw comparisons to costumes. The wearer/performer disappears in them, and, when worn, they create a completely different appearance from that of the person inside. Queer people have always created identities and personas—for adapting to the restrictions of straight spaces, expressing creativity, or for survival in an otherwise intolerant world. Aiding in the wearer’s transformation and disappearance from view, Cave’s Soundsuits are the ultimate type of protective artifice.

Performance: We queer people just cannot stop performing. Be it on Broadway, Drag Race, in Folk music, ballet or video games, there are queer people everywhere in the arts. We love to disappear into worlds of fantasy, to be the centers of attention, to express our ideas about the world, and to do it loudly and without reservation. The Soundsuits are performance objects that demand attention—they are colorful, loud (literally and figuratively), visually arresting, and they tower over and expand well beyond the average size of a person. When worn, they take up space with their presence and are unabashedly on display.

Reinvention: Cave takes ordinary objects—his studio space is basically a flea market of toys, shells, fake fur, and whatever else he finds out in the world—and turns them into Soundsuits that are part sculpture, part percussion instrument, and part costume. This idea of reinvention is a key component of the coming out experience that many queer people experience. The newness of coming into one’s own identity provides an opportunity to take the essence of oneself and re-introduce it to the world in a brand new, inherently strong, and freer form—much like the Soundsuits, whose raffia strands, knitted sleeves, and beads are reborn as a moving and living work of art.

It is for these reasons that I thought Cave’s work was a sound choice (see what I did there?) for SAM’s Object of the Week. But I also chose it because it is an artwork—like each of the dozens of Soundsuits that Cave has made—that evokes joy, much like that of LGBTQIA+ culture. Cave’s suits are alive with celebration, especially when they’re worn by dancers and you experience the full effect of their materials, colors, movement, and the ways they evoke wonder. I hope for anyone coming out, that ultimately it is a process that not only transforms your life but also brings you joy. 

Jason Porter, Kayla Skinner Deputy Director for Education and Public Engagement

Image: Soundsuit, 2006, Nick Cave, Human hair, fabricated fencing mask, sweaters, beads, metal wire, Height: approximately 6 ft., on mannequin, Gift of Vascovitz Family, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2007.70 © Nick Cave.

Object of the Week: Painting Number 49, Berlin

This Object of the Week is inspired by SAM’s special tour series, part of “For Freedoms’ 50 State Initiative,” which features programming held at arts institutions across the US to create civic dialogue about the 2018 midterm elections. Reflecting on artwork and exhibitions on view at SAM, staff members are presenting in-gallery tours that consider each of the four freedoms and connect to contemporary society.

“For Freedoms,” a collaborative project founded by artists Hank Willis Thomas and Eric Gottesman, is inspired by artist Norman Rockwell’s paintings of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” (1941)—freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.

This week’s post by SAM staff member Rachel Eggers explores freedom of speech in the work of Marsden Hartley.

Marsden Hartley (1877–1943) was an innovative Modernist artist, incorporating elements of abstraction, Expressionism, Cubism, and Primitivism in his paintings. Born in Lewiston, Maine, Hartley is known for expressive visions of his home state, including landscapes and portraits of fisherman.

But Hartley was more than a regionalist. Perhaps his most intriguing body of work is his “German officer paintings,” created while living in Berlin from 1914 to 1915. SAM has one of these extraordinary paintings in its collection, and Painting Number 49, Berlin is now on view in tribute to the late arts patron and collector, Barney A. Ebsworth, who gifted it to the museum. The painting’s thick brushstrokes, vivacious primary colors, and mysterious abstracted symbolism reveal an artist enraptured and enrapturing, enticing the viewer with a deeply personal vision that melds the physical and spiritual—and, sometimes uncomfortably, the political.

Hartley arrived in Berlin in May 1913, though it felt to the artist like a homecoming. The imperial German capital was a hub of industrial innovation and social life; it also had a relatively liberal attitude toward homosexuality. He was delighted by the city’s grand military parades, with their ostentatious display of banners, flags, plumage, and men on white horses. In them, he saw a heroic ideal of Man.

He had befriended a Prussian officer named Karl von Freyburg, who may have been the love of his life. When von Freyburg died in battle at the age of 24, Hartley plunged into a deep grief—and eventually to the creation of this fascinating series of paintings.

Painting Number 49, Berlin is exuberant, loose, and colorful—but, at its heart, it’s a memorial portrait rendered in abstracted symbols. At the center is the Iron Cross, the medal for bravery that von Freyburg was awarded. There’s an officer’s plumed helmet and epaulets; the number “24” refers to Karl’s age when he was killed. Across the bottom blooms a setting sun, radiating red: the color of martyrdom.

The painting bursts with uncomfortable—even heartbreaking—tensions between youth and death, the state and the individual, openness and restriction, color and darkness. Unable to express his sexuality and his love, Hartley turns to a network of symbols and signs. In his unimaginable grief, he merges the physical, the spiritual—and of course, the political—inventing a highly personal visual language.

–Rachel Eggers, Manager of Public Relations

Image: Painting Number 49, Berlin, 1914-15, Marsden Hartley, oil on canvas, 47 x 39 1/2 in., Partial and promised gift of Barney A. Ebsworth, 2001.1067.
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