American Sculptor, Performance Artist, and Dancer
Summary of Nick Cave
Nick Cave calls himself a "messenger, artist, educator, in that order". Working at the boundaries between fashion, performance, and fine art, he creates works that explore both his intersecting identities as a gay black man, and the wider social context of black and other marginalised peoples around the world. Growing up in a large family with very few material possessions, he learned to be resourceful and creative with found objects and recycled materials, now using these same techniques to create installations, exhibitions and the striking wearable art works that he is most famous for.
Cave's aesthetic has been described as "maximalist", featuring extravagant designs and patterns and joyful and rich colors and materials. Despite this visual exuberance however, his work interrogates important historical and contemporary issues and contains biting social commentary. Whether working as a solo artist, teacher, or curatorial catalyst for art and creativity in his home of Chicago, Cave's work has the capacity to be both joyful and angry in the tradition of the carnivalesque.
- Cave's connection to and experience in fashion and dance has led to the creation of many wearable pieces and artworks. These have a double life as objects exhibited and clothes to be worn, the movement or potential of movement within them lending a unique sense of power and immediacy to these pieces.
- Cave's work (particularly the Soundsuits for which he is best known frequently utilize traditional handicrafts and techniques historically undervalued in fine art practices. This works to subvert entrenched hierarchies in the art world and asks the viewer and critic to reassess the unexamined notions of value that the art world places on the techniques used by communities and demographics underrepresented in the art historical canon.
- Cave foregrounds his teaching and mentorship of others as something essential to his identity as an artist. Many of these performance installations feature or include his students, and he maintains his studio as a creative hub in the Chicago area. This notion of sharing knowledge and imparting wisdom is echoed in the works themselves, which reveal embodied histories, traditions, and social critiques as they are examined.
- Cave's work frequently draws on the principles and techniques of modern dance, which he trained in at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. Many of his performance installations include dance elements, often also referencing traditional dance forms from Africa and elsewhere. This focus and interrogation on movement is a distinct departure from more conventional and static exhibitions of sculptural artworks.
- His combination of different art forms (dance, theatre, fashion design and visual art) echoes many different art historical movements that operated in a similar way, such as The Bauhaus and De Stijl. This commitment to an artistic existence, rather than a delineation between practice and personal life, connects Cave to both a historical legacy of art and life blurring and a very contemporary blurring of work and identity.
The Life of Nick Cave
Cave's happy childhood as a creative boy in a supportive environment jars against his realization of the routine violence and prejudice experienced by African-Americans in wider society. Art education and his work provided a way to bridge these two realities and pass on his perspectives to his audience.
Progression of Art
One day in 1991 Cave was sitting on a bench in Chicago's Grant Park, lost in thought and distraught over the recent violent assault of unarmed African-American protestor Rodney King at the hands of the Los Angeles Police. This brutal beating had been televised for the whole world to see and was a major event in the development of 20th century race relations in the United States. Says Cave, "I felt like my identity and who I was as a human being was up for question. I felt like that could have been me. Once that incident occurred, I was existing very differently in the world. So many things were going through my head: How do I exist in a place that sees me as a threat?" He then noticed a twig on the ground, and recognized it as "something that was discarded, dismissed, viewed as less," a perfect symbol for the way he felt African-Americans were being treated by the police, and by society more broadly. He began gathering more twigs and sticks, before combining them into a sort of suit. At first, he saw it just as a sculpture, but then realized he could actually put it on. He did so, and discovered that when he moved, the suit made noise as the twigs brushed against each other. Thus was born Cave's first Soundsuit.
Since then, Soundsuits have made Cave famous, and have been exhibited in a range of contexts. Though they are highly fantastical, whimsical, and beautiful, Cave notes, "I don't ever see the Soundsuits as fun. They really are coming from a very dark place. The Soundsuits hide gender, race, class, and they force you to look at the work without judgment. [...] A Soundsuit is a sort of wearable sculpture. It can be very still, and yet it can be extremely animated. It's a suit of armor, a retaliation vestment, a political statement. It's a shaman". Always appearing in groups, and with no two being identical to each other, these Soundsuits sit at the intersection of art (sculpture and assemblage), fashion, performance, and dance, and are, in a way, a natural outcome of Cave's life-long love of repurposing used/found objects in creative news ways.
Since the first Soundsuit made of twigs, Cave has created over 500 others, using sisal, sequins, fur, feathers, beads, buttons, wire, and even dyed human hair. Many of the forms and designs are inspired by African ceremonial costumes and masks (such as those of the Dogon people of Mali). Art critic Megan O'Grady writes that Cave's Soundsuits "are compulsively, unsettlingly decorative. Some are amusingly creature-like; others are lovely in an almost ecclesiastical way, bedecked with shimmering headpieces embellished with beads and porcelain birds and other discarded tchotchkes he picks up at flea markets. Even at the level of medium, Cave operates against entrenched hierarchies, elevating glittery consumer detritus and traditional handicrafts like beadwork or sewing to enchanting heights".
Twigs and found objects
Cave sees his Soundsuits as falling into two categories: static pieces to be displayed as sculptures, and pieces to be worn, moved in, and performed in. This 2009 Soundsuit falls into the former category. It comes from a series of Soundsuits whose overall form was inspired, in part, by Ku Klux Klan robes and hoods, yet adorned with what he sees as very specific and special fashion details, such as the beadwork and sequins that echo both high-fashion glamour and traditional handicrafts from the global south.
Curator Ekow Eshun notes that "one of the things that makes [the] Soundsuits so magical, so, fantastical as works, is that they're not about a retreat or an escape from reality. They're an assertion of interiority as a place of richness and possibility. They strike such a chord because you look at them and understand that they aren't decorative, they are assertions of space, and of being and dreaming". Cave confirms this, stating that "They are a pushback on the constant assault [of systemic brutality and racialized trauma]. We always have to come up with ways to position ourselves and armour ourselves in order to navigate ourselves."
Arts writer Joshua Glass asserts that "Flamboyant and jubilant, [...] sequined, spangled, and surgically designed, the mixed-media forms [channel] the animation of Jim Henson with symbolic codes of African dance, Ball culture, and New Orleans's Mardi Gras." Art critic Megan O'Grady writes that the Soundsuits' "origins are less intellectual than emotional, as Cave tells it, and they're both playful and deadly serious. [Cave] initially conceived of them as a kind of race-, class- and gender-obscuring armature, one that's both insulating and isolating, an articulation of his profound sense of vulnerability as a black man. Using costume to unsettle and dispel assumptions about identity is part of a long tradition of drag, from Elizabethan drama to Stonewall and beyond; at the same time, the suits are the perfect expression of W.E.B. Du Bois's idea of double consciousness, the psychological adjustments black Americans make in order to survive within a white racist society, a vigilant, anticipatory awareness of the perceptions of others."
Mixed Media - Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C.
While some of Cave's Soundsuits are exhibited as static sculptures, many others become part of performances, worn by the artist himself, or hired dancers. In 2013 for this seven-day performance, Heard-NY (commissioned by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in New York), sixty dancers from the Alvin Ailey Dance Company (where Cave had studied dance as a young man) wore thirty equine Soundsuits made of synthetic raffia (a kind of African palm), and performed choreographed routines in the Vanderbilt Hall of New York's Grand Central Terminal, set to harp and drum music. The title for the work is a play on words, referencing both "herd" (of horses) and "heard", an important word for Cave who often states that "In order to be heard you have to speak louder". Cave says he chose horses because of "their majestic grandness. There is an implication of power and strength and dignity within the work that I think is very relevant".
Arts writer Andrew M. Goldstein has called Heard-NY "a galloping success" that "could be compared to Christo and Jeanne-Claude's legendary The Gates in miniature, so rapturous was the public response". Goldstein adds, however, that unlike The Gates, Heard-NY "was not pure visual spectacle - it was a deftly layered commentary on ceremony (particularly costumed West African ritual), identity, and the place of dreams in civic life".
Cave has explained that, when he created his first Soundsuit out of twigs in 1992, "at first, it didn't occur to me that I could wear it; I wasn't thinking about it." When he did put it on, however, and discovered that the suit made an interesting noise when he moved, he says "that was the beginning. [...] The sound was a way of alarming others to my presence. The suit became a suit of armor where I hid my identity. It was something 'other.' It was an answer to all of these things I had been thinking about: What do I do to protect my spirit in spite of all that's happening around me?"
Since then, many viewers and critics have found that the suits are most powerfully "activated" when displayed as part of performances. Curator Michal Raz-Russo notes that "[the suits'] meanings shift and multiply with each exhibition and performance, set in places as varied as the theatre stage, fashion runway, and city street." Art critic Megan O'Grady writes that "in invigorating performances that often involve collaborations with local musicians and choreographers, the Soundsuits can seem almost shaman-esque, a contemporary spin on kukeri, ancient European folkloric creatures said to chase away evil spirits. They recall as well something out of Maurice Sendak, ungainly wild things cutting loose on the dance floor in a gleeful, liberating rumpus. The surprising movements of the Soundsuits, which change depending on the materials used to make them, tend to guide Cave's performances and not the other way around. There is something ritual-like and purifying about all the whirling hair and percussive music".
Performance - Grand Central Terminal, New York City
In addition to his wearable sculptures and performance works, Cave also creates more traditional, static assemblage and installation work, such as Sea Sick (2014). The piece is comprised of several oil paintings of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century ships (schooners and galleons) on the ocean, all with idealized bright blue skies with puffy white clouds. At the top of the installation, between and above the paintings, is a ceramic sculpture of a Black man's head - embodying racist visual archetypes such as those seen often in the caricatures of the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The head is positioned between two gold hand-shaped bookends, upon which is perched a gold sculpture of a seventeenth-century Spanish galleon on the waves.
Artist and writer Howard Halle explains that in this work, "Cave harkens back to the infamous Middle Passage that transported slaves to these shores," and notes that the sculpture of the Black man's head is "complete with stereotypically plump red lips and bright white teeth breaking out in an idiotic smile - one of many such collectibles that became popular among Whites, both North and South, from Jim Crow through the Civil Rights era". Halle adds that the man's "eyes have also been painted out, a gesture which, along with the bookends, transforms a denigrating grin into an anguished scream worthy of Munch." In fact, the racist sculpture (which Cave found at a flea market) was not just a sculpture. A label at the market identified it as a spittoon [a jar for spitting chewing tobacco into]. Cave says that when he discovered this, "I literally just flipped out. I was in a state of disbelief."
Sea Sick was part of Cave's exhibition titled Made by Whites for Whites, at Jack Shainman's 20th Street Gallery in New York. All the works featured in the show incorporated racist memorabilia, like the spittoon, into compositions that explored the nation's racist past and present. It is likely that Cave was familiar with the work of African-American artist Betye Saar, who similarly used racist memorabilia in her assemblage work, like The Liberation of Aunt Jemima (1972). Says Cave, "It's always the object that provides me the impulse. [...] It has to have a pulse. It also has to have multiple reads, that I can sort of turn it upside-down." Performer Marilee Talkington notes that, "while the effects of these kitschy yet potent ornaments - which Cave calls relics - are not always immediately apparent, their imagery seeps into the unconscious of anyone who encounters them. Racism is propagated in the mind, and in everyday life, as much as it is the law of the land". She also notices that in Sea Sick, "the ships in each painting lean heavily in different directions, evoking nausea, just as the discovery of the offensive spittoon sickened Cave".
Since creating the work, Cave has learned that, rather than being a spittoon (as it was advertised at the flea market), the head was more likely made to be a tobacco container. Rather than taking away from the work's significance, however, this adds another layer of meaning, as slaves were also put to work harvesting tobacco in the American colonies.
Mixed Media including oil paintings, ceramic container, cast hands, and plastic ship - Jack Shainman Gallery, New York
In 2016, Cave presented an exhibition titled Until at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. The installation in the show explored the legal principle of "innocent until proven guilty", particularly in relation to gun violence in America and the treatment of racial minorities by the authorities. Curator Denise Markonish notes that the show demonstrates that Cave "has a dark side" and "wants to seduce you and punch you in the gut". As with his first Soundsuit, Cave was inspired to create the work following the death of an unarmed Black man at the hands of the police, this time eighteen-year-old Michael Brown. Cave stated that the event prompted him to ponder "Is there racism in Heaven?", a thought which led to the development of Until.
Curator Michal Raz-Russo explains that, for Until, Cave "converted a former factory building into what appeared to be a magical landscape the length of a football field. Yet, as viewers passed through, they were confronted with symbols of violence and racist imagery. Thousands of hanging wind spinners created a dazzling curtain, but amid the innocuous starburst and smiley face doodads were more-menacing ornaments shaped as guns, bullets, and tears. Patrons then encountered a sparkling cloud made up of chandeliers and crystals above which viewers could glimpse a forest of ceramic birds, flowers, and animals. Tucked within the trinkets, however, were antique lawn jockeys painted with blackface. The racist artifacts from the pre-civil-rights era caricatured African Americans. Cave placed such unsettling objects among pleasing baubles as if to startle viewers out of their complacency and engage them with the ongoing problems of gun violence and racial inequality in the United States".
Art critic Megan O'Grady called the piece "a sinister wonderland". Until was much more than an installation. The exhibition space also served as a stage for dancers, musicians, and poets, as well as for "panel discussions, community forums, and other forms of creative public debate and engagement".
Cave has developed a number of other pieces that deal with similar themes, and which aim to be participatory in nature, allowing communities to come together and take part in the creation of not only a piece of art, but a dialogue about pressing issues. For instance, in The Let Go (2018), Cave created a disco-like space in New York's Park Avenue Armory, in which visitors could "let go", that is, move and dance through any stress or anxieties they had, much as he had done at dance clubs as a young man. Then, in 2020, following the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, Cave began a community-based project called Amends, which involved friends, colleagues, and other community members hand-writing personal testimonials (in which they were to reflect upon their own biases and actions, and arrive at new resolutions and commitments), which were then mounted around the gallery of his Facility in Chicago, as well as on a clothesline in the schoolyard across the street.
Installation - Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, North Adams
Since the early 2000s, Cave has been creating Hustle Coats - trench coats lined with a dazzling array of costume jewelry, watches, chains, and other flashy objects. Yet another form of "wearable art" that share much with Cave's trademark Soundsuits, these coats are a striking example of Cave's obsession with the relationship of fashion to culture. The Hustle Coats reference the trench coats worn by illegal street salesmen (as often seen on TV and in movies), who approach potential customer and discretely open their coats to reveal the item they are selling, such as knock-off luxury items, like fake Rolex watches and gold chains. Says Cave, "I'm totally consumed by the special attire that has a powerful and meaningful purpose within a culture".
The title of the work also references the "hustle code" of the streets, that is, the belief that individuals from underprivileged backgrounds need to "hustle" or work hard by any means necessary (legal or illegal) in order to succeed. Arts writer Max Lakin asserts that with works like this Cave "convincingly exploits fashion's paradox, its simultaneous desire for concealment and acknowledgment, in ways that both anoint Black cultural history and illuminate its anxieties. [The Hustle Coat] is a canny sight gag on the coat-flashing street hawker, but also the idea of 'ghetto fabulousness,' style in the face of deprivation".
Mixed media, including a trench coat, cast bronze hand, metal, costume jewelry, watches and chains
Biography of Nick Cave
Nick Cave was the third of seven boys born to mother Sharon Kelly, a medical administrator. He grew up in Fulton, Missouri, but also spent much of his childhood at his maternal grandparents' farm in nearby Chariton, Missouri. His parents divorced when he was young, and his father passed away when he was sixteen. Nevertheless, he remembers his early years as happy, saying "It was really so amazing for my brothers and myself to be in the presence of all of that unconditional love. We were rambunctious, and of course you fight with your brothers, but we always made up through hugging or kissing. It was just part of the infrastructure." He also has particularly favorable memories of their social environment growing up, where neighbors and other members of the community would care for children and ensure they were safe. As he later stated "There was a sense that these guardians were around me at all times".
Many of Cave's family members were creative, such as his aunts who were seamstresses, his grandmother who made quilts, and his grandfather who made furniture. The fact that the family was always short of cash taught Cave to be resourceful, such as by designing his own clothes from his older brothers' hand-me-downs. Says Cave, "I had to find ways of finding my identity through deconstructing, so, if I didn't want to be in my brother's jacket, I'd take off the sleeves and replace it with plaid material. I was already in that process of cutting and putting things back together and finding a new vocabulary through dress". Repurposing old materials and found objects would go on to define much of his later career as an artist and fashion designer.
Cave has shared other anecdotes about learning to be resourceful from his mother. In one instance when she realized there was no food in the kitchen besides dried corn, and no money to buy anything to eat, she used the corn to make popcorn and turned the evening into a party for her sons. She also turned old socks into hand puppets to entertain the boys. Cave says he learned that "It doesn't take much to shift how we experience something. [...] You're just totally captivated. It's these moments of fantasy and belief that's also informed how I go about my work."
Cave also recalls that "As a child [...] I learned about such crafts as weaving and macrame. [...] And also, drafting, building, and constructing. And with my older brother Jack, we drew from still lives. We would have one hour to compete who is the quickest and most detailed. We constantly challenged ourselves. [...] We also did performance work. And already early on I was bringing people together to create events and street happenings. I was thinking about collaboration and that public space could become my canvas". Another particularly impactful experience was his first visit at an art museum, which took place in his junior year of high school. He says, "we went to the Saint Louis Art Museum where I saw my first [Anselm] Kiefer. I cried. Something happened then. It was emotional and profound. I was lost for words".
Cave's interest in fashion was further piqued when the Ebony Fashion Fair came to town. He recalls that, for him and his brother Jack, "Ebony magazine was really the first place we saw people of color with style and power and money and vision, and that fashion show would travel to all of these small towns. Honey, black runway back in the day was a spectacle. It's not just walking down the runway. It was almost like theater. And I'm this young boy just eating it up and feeling like I'm just in a dream, because it's all fabulous and I just admire beauty to that extreme. I was just completely consumed by that." He was also inspired to explore Black fashion by seeing the older women in his family wearing elaborate hats to church on Sundays.
Education and Early Training
Cave graduated from Hickman High School in 1977. Some of his teachers there had encouraged him to apply to the Kansas City Art Institute, where his brother Jack was already studying in the art program. He was accepted and received his Bachelor of Fine Arts in 1982. During his studies, he staged elaborate fashion shows with Jack. In 1979, he met dancer and choreographer Alvin Ailey, and began spending time each summer in New York studying at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre.
Following his graduation, Cave worked as a display designer for the Macy's department store whilst also designing his own fashion. He then took some graduate-level courses at the University of North Texas, and earned a Master of Fine Arts from Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, in 1988 (where he notes that he struggled with being "the only minority there", making this the first time he had to "confront [his] identity as a black male"). The following year, he began teaching in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at the University of Chicago. He later taught in, and directed, the university's Department of Fashion.
Artist and writer Howard Halle explains that "Emerging in the late 1990s, Cave was influenced by music, especially the Afro-psychedelic sound and outré stage spectacles of George Clinton and his legendary funk ensemble, Parliament-Funkadelic, as well as the thrumming beats and Dionysian atmosphere of dance clubs. He also found inspiration in the Bauhaus's ethos of blending art, design, and theater. Indeed, the echoes of Oskar Schlemmer's costumes for Triadic Ballet (1922) resonate noticeably in Cave's signature 'Sound Suits,' which serve as both standalone pieces and performance attire."
Art critic Megan O'Grady notes that, "Also harrowingly formative to Cave's outlook was the AIDS crisis, which was at its deadly height while he was in graduate school [...] in the late '80s. He became painfully aware of the function of denial in our culture, and the extent of people's unwillingness to see". Cave, who is gay, and who lost five friends to AIDS-related illnesses in the span of a year, has explained that "Watching my friends die played a big part in my perspective. In those moments, you have a choice to be in denial with them or to be present, to be the one to say, 'This is happening.' You have to make a decision to go through that process with them, to pick up their parents at the airport, to clean to get their apartments ready for their parents to stay. And then you have to say goodbye, and then they're gone, and you're packing up their belongings to send to their families. And then you're just left there in an empty apartment, not knowing what to feel."
Cave's first major success came in 1992, shortly after he made and exhibited his first Soundsuit. In these pieces he uses twigs and other found materials to create elaborate costumes that make curious sounds when worn and moved in, hence the title of the series. He has made over 500 of these Soundsuits, and they have made him famous in the art world, being exhibited in major galleries and museums the world over as part of both solo exhibitions and prestigious group shows. Cave participated in the 51st Venice Biennale (2005) and the 2017-2018 National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) Triennial with his Soundsuits.
However, writes Megan O'Grady, "for many years after he began making his signature work, Cave deliberately avoided the spotlight, shying away from an adoring public". As Cave explains, "I knew I had the ability, but I wasn't ready, or I didn't want to leave my friends behind. I think this grounded me, and made me an artist with a conscience. Then, one day, something said, 'Now or never', and I had to step into the light." In June 2022, Cave was awarded an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree from the Rhode Island School of Design. He also has his own fashion line.
In addition to this success as an artist in his own right, Cave is a prestigious and committed teacher and mentor. He has served as a visiting instructor and artist-in-residence at several institutions, including Beloit College in Beloit Wisconsin, the Fabric Workshop & Museum in Philadephia, McColl Center for Art + Innovation in Charlotte, North Carolina, the Pilchuck Glass School in Stanwood, Washington, the University of Arizona, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. O'Grady, who had the opportunity to sit in on some of Cave's crits (formal feedback sessions in art school contexts) with his MFA students in 2019, observed that "He clearly adores all of his charges, and sees teaching as a way of passing on his own teacher's lessons: a way of liberating the creative subconscious within the technical rigors of design."
Says Cave, "As a professor, I feel that the most important thing is to make sure that students get a full-circle experience, and that they leave school knowing how to trust themselves. They've got to have the passion and conviction to manage their careers. Being an artist is not by any means as glamorous as one may think it is. It's a lot of work, it's a lot of commitment and sacrifice. But if this is what drives you, there's absolutely nothing that can interfere with that pathway. I try to get them closer to understanding that."
Cave lives and works in Chicago. He says "I'm not sure I would be where I am in my career, had I landed in New York. Chicago nurtures artists in a very different way. Somehow, they are not tainted here. The level of saturation in New York is so much. Here you don't really have that. Chicago allows me consistency and clarity." In 2019, he opened his "Facility" (echoing Andy Warhol's Factory), a multidisciplinary art space and creative incubator on the Northwest side of the city. He says that the aim of the space is "Facilitating, you know, projects. Energies. Individuals. Dreams". Cave resides in and runs the Facility with his brother Jack, as well as his husband, Bob Faust (who is also an artist and designer), and Faust's teenage daughter.
The couple met when Faust stumbled upon a sample sale of Cave's clothing designs in the early 2000s. Cave recalls, "He came in and was like, 'These clothes are so out there, I can't wear any of this,'" To be polite, however, Faust bought a sweater, which he still wears today. The two men got to talking, and upon learning that Faust was a designer, Cave asked him to collaborate on his first book. Faust went on to design all of Cave's books. Their relationship was entirely professional until about 2011. Says Cave, "Before that, I was single for 10 years. I was always traveling, and who is going to handle all of that? But Bob already knew who I was, and that makes all the difference. Being with someone who is a visionary in his own right and using this platform as a place of consciousness - it's very important to me."
O'Grady explains that, in Facility, "Upstairs is the couple's living space and selections from Cave's personal art collection: a Kehinde Wiley here, a Kerry James Marshall there. (A lesson from Cave: Buy work from your friends before they become famous.) Cave and Faust opted to leave the floors and walls scarred, bearing the traces of its former use as an industrial building. In a small, sunny room off the kitchen, one corner of the ceiling is left open to accommodate an abandoned wasp's nest, a subtle, scrolled masterpiece of found architecture. [...] Downstairs, in the cavernous work space big enough to host a fashion show, musical or dance performance, are Cave's and Faust's studios".
O'Grady continues, noting that "a front gallery is a flexible space where video art visible from the street could be projected - a nod to Cave's first job out of art school, designing window displays for Macy's - or young artists could be invited to display work around a shared theme. Facility has already established an art competition and prizes for Chicago Public School students and funded a special award for graduate fashion students at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago". Says Cave, "There are lots of creative people that do amazing things but just have never had a break, and so to be able to host them in some way, these are the sort of things that are important to us, so we thought, 'Why not?'"
The Legacy of Nick Cave
While Nick Cave is best known for his Soundsuits, they are just some of the many multi-faceted visual artworks, performances, and participatory projects he creates that poignantly address issues of race, gender, and identity in America. Curator Naomi Beckwith asserts that his art "is both a sobering recognition of all that has stayed the same as well as a portal through which to instantiate a different, more utopic future." Similarly, curator Ekow Eshun writes that Cave's "artworks invite and insist upon further inquiry. The more you engage with them, the more they give you back the truth. That's one of the ways that we can get through because [...] the assault is absolutely real. It's physical and psychological. It's every single day." In particular, Eshun admires the "capacity for [Cave's] work to speak so patiently and eloquently about all sorts of sorrow and beauty simultaneously".
According to artist and writer Howard Halle, "Cave's work comprises extravagant accumulations of stuff, inviting the eye to rummage around and discover connections between things and their meaning. [...] He employs his harvest of the cast-off and unloved to excavate the history and collective memory of African Americans. [...] Cave's efforts are ornate and even baroque, reveling in a kind of jubilancy that meets the pain of racism with defiant celebration. [...] Bit by salvaged bit, Cave builds powerful narratives that recall the struggles of Black lives like his family's, and their strategies for survival."
Although many African-American artists are working today to address similar themes, Cave stands out among them, in large part due to his exuberant maximalist style, and his frequent focus on fashion as art. Says art critic Megan O'Grady: "It comes as no surprise that Cave's favorite adjective is 'fabulous'". Though still young and active, Cave's artistic practice has already had an influence on an even younger generation of artists, like San Francisco-based queer fibre artist Josh Faught, African-American artist Ellen Gallagher, and Chicago-based Anke Lot, who combines fashion with art and "wearable technology".