Walking through the 30 Americans exhibition, one enters a world filled with vibrant color, lush tactile materials, playful embellishment, and stunning craftsmanship. If all of these attributes are not enough to shock your senses, the sheer scale of some of the works will push you over the edge. Stand in front of Kehinde Wiley’s Sleep to experience what it is to be engulfed by a painting. Lose yourself in the fine details of a single fold of fabric or in the intricate maze of his ornate patterns; you will walk away with your senses buzzing.
The entire exhibition is one sensory exercise after another, a sublime workout for mind and soul. Yet, what I find so appealing about 30 Americans is its playfulness. I love looking at Mickalene Thomas’ Baby I Am Ready Now and seeing an empowered woman: a very strong, confident portrait. But I also see rhinestones. Everywhere I look I see more and more rhinestones, creating beautiful patterns and adding a new layer to the portrayal of this assertive woman. The decoration does not diminish the strength of the portrait; it adds life. It adds a personal, sensual quality. It suggests a softer note to the story, a playful “let’s get dressed up and have some fun” kind of attitude. I love it.
Who doesn’t like to get all dressed up? Nick Cave doesn’t seem to mind. His Soundsuits are simply incredible. Such exquisite detailing and use of materials in unconventional ways result in truly magical pieces of art. It is the human form all decked out: jewels, embroidery, oversize flowers, even silky rainbow-saturated hair. Cave’s Soundsuits seem to pose the challenge, “Just try and not have fun.” Their playfulness is infectious (and we all need more playtime in our lives). If you are as captivated by Nick Cave’s work as I am, you’ll be glad that the artist has also made it possible to take the festivity home, with a Soundsuit punching bag or an Imagination Book to create your own Soundsuit design (available from the online Museum Store, of course).
The creativity and boldness of the 30 Americans exhibition spills over: beyond the gallery walls, into our homes, into our hearts. For me, 30 Americans has been a friendly reminder of how serious art (and serious content) can be enriched by retaining a youthful exuberance and an intelligent, playful spirit.
This post is one of a series on staff perspectives of 30 Americans. Andrew Morgan manages inventory for the Museum Store.
Image: Nick Cave, Soundsuit, 2008, fabric, fiberglass, and metal, H. 102 x W. 36 x D. 28 in., Rubell Family Collection, Miami, © 2010 Nick Cave