Complex Conversations with Willie Cole

by Carey Terhune, BLS Humanities student
introduced by Ann Millett-Gallant

The students in my BLS 346: “The Art of Life” class had an assignment to write a review of an art exhibition or a work of public art.  One of my students, Carey Terhune, wrote this strong review of the Willie Cole exhibition, which is on view at UNCG’s Weatherspoon Art Museum through December 15.  Carey is originally from Orange County, California and now lives in High Point, NC with her husband and 3 children.  She is currently a student in the BLS program and aspires to be a book or film critic and to write her own book one day.  When she is not doing school work or taking care of her kids, she enjoys writing, blogging, entertaining and cooking with her great friends, and traveling with her family.

Willie Cole, Man, Spirit, Mask

Man, Spirit, Mask (1999)

 Complex Conversations with Willie Cole

The artist Willie Cole is known for transforming ordinary objects into symbolic representations, with themes ranging from the African slave trade and West African tribal traditions to American urban life and personal identity. In his exhibition entitled “Complex Conversations: Willie Cole Sculptures and Wall Works,” Cole presents a collection of forty pieces from across his professional career, covering a range of artistic mediums, including three dimensional sculptures, drawings, embossing, and prints.  This collection in particular features found objects, such as old hairdryers, discarded high heeled shoes, and most prevalently, the steam iron, which pervades the majority of his work.  Cole exemplifies what Michael Kimmelman describes in his book, The Accidental Masterpiece: On the Art of Life and Vice Versa, as the kind of artist who celebrates the beauty in ordinary things. Kimmelman reminds us that, “it is the ability of more circumscribed artists to slow our systems, calm our minds, and show us reality as we have probably not considered it…” (214). Cole revitalizes and transforms the ordinary, and it is with these uniquely simple elements that he invites us to mine our way through this exhibition and experience the complexity of his work.

Having spent the majority of his life in Newark, New Jersey, as the eldest son in a primarily matriarchal family, Willie Cole’s work is anchored in his love of urban life, and respect for feminine power. He identifies himself as an “urban archaeologist,” (Joyner) creating his work from a global perspective, and representing the human experience.  It is obvious that Cole has a very personal connection with all of the pieces in this collection, which is apparent from the moment one enters the gallery at Weatherspoon Art Museum in Greensboro, North Carolina. The very first piece we encounter, Self Portrait, ca. 1979, is a simple pastel drawing on a brown paper bag just inside the main entrance to the gallery. Cole uses vibrant pastel colors to highlight his face as if reflecting the glow of inner-city lights at night. This image seems to be welcoming visitors to the exhibit, and introducing Cole as the artist.

Willie Cole, Shoe Bouquet

Shoe Bouquet (2009)

As we continue through the spacious gallery, painted white from floor to ceiling, we encounter one of Cole’s featured pieces, Shoe Bouquet, 2009, constructed out of wood, screws, metal, staples, and hundreds of worn-out, women’s, high-heeled shoes in a variety of colors. The leather and varying fabrics of the shoes are bent and curled into giant flowers seeming to create a four-foot-high bouquet. It is positioned in the center of the first segment of the gallery because it is truly meant to be experienced from all sides. Each flower reveals layers of dimension and texture, calling attention to the bottoms of most of the shoes, as if to salute the miles walked in them by hundreds of women. It’s as if he’s returning the shoes to their original beauty by transforming them into this symbolic gift to women.

Moving forward through the gallery we pass by some of his beautiful prints, drawings and photographs featuring images of West African tribal traditions infused with countless steam iron impressions.  To the left we encounter, Double Headed Gas Snake, 1997, a sculpture constructed of articulating sheet metal hoses with metal nozzles and rebar. It resembles a giant snake with two heads, which seem to be fighting one another. This is another reference to Cole’s urban upbringing, in that it addresses the issues of urban violence, and acknowledges its presence as an intricate part of the beauty of inner-city life.

Willie Cole, Por La Mesa de Mi Abuelita x4 (2007)

Por La Mesa de Mi Abuelita x4 (2007)

Progressing further we encounter Por La Mesa de Mi Abuelita x4, 2007, a pale pink pigmented, cotton liner paper with embossing, cut by water stream. This piece at first seems somewhat dull and monochromatic compared with some of his more vibrant works, but as we move closer it becomes clearer that these large, snowflake-like paper cutouts are more symbolic of Cole’s artistic style. They are delicate, as if to appeal to women, featuring layered impressions of steam irons. And yet, they have a slightly dirty and torn appearance, fitting right in with the urban themes of the exhibition. An even closer look reveals details that connect it to Cole’s tribal themes as well, including dozens of tiny spears and overlapping steam iron cutouts that resemble tribal masks at the corners of each of the four pieces.

Cole continues this collaboration of themes in several other pieces throughout the exhibition. Examples include a tribal mask constructed out of dismantled antique hairdryers; an oversized antique ironing board that resembles a tribal shield, embellished with steam-iron-scorched markings; and a sculpture assembled using parts of an old bicycle that resembles an African mask dance figure.

Willie Cole, Wind Mask

Wind Mask (1991)

Nearing the end of the exhibition, on a large white wall shared with just one other piece, hangs Man, Spirit, Mask, 1999, a three-part image in which Cole utilizes photo etching, a silkscreen, and wood to artfully draw the viewer into his private world. In this piece we are able to see how Cole’s identity is interwoven with the elements and themes of his work.  This piece arranges a photo etching of the artist, a steam iron scorched impression, and a tribal mask print. They are displayed side by side, representing the man, the spirit, and the mask. All resemble one another in scale, size, shape, and color, and all seem to express the same stalwart gaze, but are different parts of the whole person, as an artist. With so many varying mediums represented in this collection, Man, Spirit, Mask, 1999 seems to merge these components into one powerful representation of the artist himself. We begin our exploration of this collection with the simple yet captivating greeting of his Self Portrait, ca.1979, and by the end we understand Willie Cole, and his bold and soulful exhibition, on a more personal level. This melding of artistic inspirations using commonplace items defines Cole’s work in this collection and throughout his career, reminding us that beauty and meaning can be found in the most ordinary objects, which are “accessible to us all, at almost any time, if we are just prepared to look for them” (Kimmelman, 214).

Works Cited

Joyner, Amy. “Found Object Sparks Theme in Artist Willie Cole’s Work.News and Record. Web. 5 October 2013.

Kimmelman, Michael. The Accidental Masterpiece: On the Art of Life and Vice Versa. New York: Penguin Books, 2006. Print.

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