Originally published October 28, 2010 by CityArts
Willie Cole is one of the most innovative artists working today. And what makes his work so special is that he chooses to focus at any given time on a highly limited range of subject and imagery. Like a dog gnawing at a bone, Cole devotes himself to an image or object and mines it for all the depth of meaning it can yield. It is a mode of work that continually reveals surprises in the most mundane of subjects.
This exhibition at The James Gallery located in the CUNY Graduate Center is billed as sort of a retrospective of Cole’s works on paper, but it centers mainly on the work that he produced using a collection of old steam irons as a source of both imagery and actual marks on paper. The result is rich and layered in meaning and surprisingly diverse.
Cole has a collection of 12 steam irons from various eras of the 20th century, and each has its own distinct burn pattern of vents and holes on the bottom of the device. Cole has applied these patterns, in conjunction with photography and various printmaking techniques, to singe sheets of paper to produce a range of images that reference everything from masks to flowers to tribal shields. The effect is a brilliant rumination on the power of common objects to transcend their original purpose and take us to unexpected places. Several of the works are powerful comments on race, the slave trade and colonial views of Africans.
Three large photographic prints use chipper advertising slogans for irons as titles. “Loyal and Dependable,” “Quick as a Wink” and “Satisfaction Guaranteed” describe the portraits of fierce mask-like irons. Like the heads of cruel robots, they dare the viewer to see them solely as domestic objects.
Through Jan. 8, 2011, The James Gallery of the Graduate Center, The City University of New York, 365 5th Ave., 212-817-7392.