Nick Cave has spent more than three decades addressing issues of race within his work. The 1992 Los Angeles Riots, spurred by the beating of Rodney King by police, galvanized the Chicago-based artist into creating his signature Soundsuits—bright, enveloping costumes made of everyday objects that obscure the wearer’s gender, race, and class. “George Floyd was another tipping point for me,” Cave tells the New York Times. “It made me question my own practice. Is my work purposeful enough? Why does this keep happening? How can I do more? I’ve been working against this problem and for this issue my entire career and am more committed to it than ever. We need to be talking about it.”
His latest work, on display at Jack Shainman Gallery’s offshoot in Kinderhook, New York, aims to do exactly that. Called Truth Be Told and part of the gallery’s “States of Being” social justice initiative, the installation features its eponymous phrase displayed across the facade of The School, the 1929 red brick building that houses the gallery, in 25-foot-tall black vinyl letters that stretch nearly 160 feet long. Cave intended Truth Be Told to start conversations about systemic racism and police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, which sparked a wave of racial justice protests over the summer. “The statement is a pointed antidote to a presidency known for propaganda that disguises truth and history to present racist and nativist ideology as patriotism,” reads a description of the artwork on Jack Shainman’s website. “It’s also open-ended, intended to spark questions surrounding personal interpretations of truth and integrity.”
Instead of starting conversations about race, Cave’s artwork has stirred up controversy about whether or not the text-based work technically qualifies as a sign and thus violates local building codes. Residents and officials of the sleepy Hudson Valley village want it removed, which Cave views as an “indication of where people stand.” (Columbia County, home to Kinderhook, went blue in the 2020 election.) The gallery argues that Truth Be Told’s public display is protected by the special use permit that the School was given when it was founded, but Kinderhook officials aren’t budging. They note that the artwork’s big black letters cover the building’s windows and doors, which allegedly creates a fire hazard. Shainman’s attorney, William J. Better, isn’t buying that explanation—he points to plastic Halloween decorations as being much more flammable than the 3M vinyl that Cave used for the letters.