Memorial Art Gallery Features Willie Cole's Iconic Works

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A nationally touring, mid-career retrospective of works by American artist Willie Cole opens January 21 at the Memorial Art Gallery. Anxious Objects: Willie Cole's Favorite Brands features 31 assemblages, prints and mixed-media works created between 1988 and 2006.

Fun, funky and provocative, Cole's art transforms such urban artifacts as bicycles, irons, hair dryers and high-heeled shoes into powerful, iconic works as it explores and reinterprets African tribal art, global culture and personal identity. At MAG, the exhibition includes a work that's not part of the original tour-a monumental chessboard from a private collection, with lawn jockey playing pieces.

Deery). Courtesy of Alexander and Bonin, New York. Fun, funky and provocative, Cole's art transforms such urban artifacts as bicycles, irons, hair dryers and high-heeled shoes into powerful, iconic works as it explores and reinterprets African tribal art, global culture and personal identity.

At MAG, the exhibition includes a work that's not part of the original tour-a monumental chessboard from a private collection, with lawn jockey playing pieces.

It's not the first time Cole's work has been shown at MAG. Extreme Materials, which opened in January 2006, featured one of his steam iron sculptures. And it won't be the last. The Gallery recently acquired a work from Anxious Objects for the permanent collection. Fashioned from bicycle parts, Sears Ross tji wara (mother and child) (2002) reimagines a ritual headdress from the west African nation of Mali.

Anxious Objects remains on view through March 11.

About the exhibition title

The term "anxious objects" was coined by American art critic Harold Rosenberg (1906-1978). A champion of Abstract Expressionism, Rosenberg used the term to refer to objects that have a strong cultural identity and energy-objects that Cole calls the "battery."

"I lived in Newark in the 70s and 80s when assemblage was king," says Cole of such objects in the exhibition catalog, "and discovered that the sudden addition or omission of a single 'thing' could render an assemblage dead or alive."

About the artist

Born in 1955, Willie Cole is a lifelong resident of New Jersey. His artistic ability was apparent from the age of three, when his mother enrolled him in Saturday children's art classes at the Newark Museum. He was accepted at Newark's respected Arts High School, where he majored in fashion design. In Manhattan, where he commuted after graduation, he received his BFA at the School of Visual Arts and studied at the Art Students League.

The earliest work in Anxious Objects dates from 1988, when Cole was an artist-in-residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem. It was at this time that his artistic vision matured and he began assembling artifacts from a throwaway culture into iconic artworks. It was also at this time that he began using one of his signature motifs-the steam iron.

For Cole, the iron has personal meaning. His parents separated when he was 11, leaving him and an older sister in a woman-centered family. As man of the house, he frequently repaired broken irons for his mother and grandmother, both housekeepers. But it wasn't until much later that he realized their artistic potential.

Not only does Cole use steam irons, cords and plates as components of his sculptures, he also uses irons to create scorch marks on paper, ironing boards, even-in works such as Man Spirit Mask (1999)-his own photograph. The patterns recall African masks and shields and bring to mind ritual scarification.

Cole's work isn't just about irons, though. High Security Jacket for Executives Only (1988) is woven from galvanized steel scraps from air-conditioning ducts and emblazoned with the emblem from a Cadillac sedan. Assembled from blow dryers, Wind Mask East (1990) calls to mind a carved wall mask from Sri Lanka. Made in the Philippines (1993) evokes Imelda Marcos, the Philippine first lady notorious for her love of shoes; the work consists of hundreds of colorful high heels from thrift shops fashioned into an opulent, throne-like chair. The cobra-like Gas Snake with Blue Nozzle (1996) is a commentary on the Gulf War and our world's gas and oil dependence.

Today, Willie Cole's work is in major collections including the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; the Philadelphia Museum of Art; and the National Gallery of Art, Washington. He lives and works in Mine Hill, New Jersey. -- mag.rochester.edu

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