Complex Conversations: a Willie Cole exhibit at the Weatherspoon Museum

One of the first things you’ll notice is that Willie Cole is a man of many talents. His materials range from drawing and print making to sculpture and wall works. The sculpture and wall works were all constructed with found objects that reflect the identities we make for ourselves through classic examples of everyday objects that have American consumerism written all over them, like steam irons, high heel shoes, hairdryers, and gas pumps. This particular exhibition covers over thirty years of his work, thus revealing to the viewer his varied stages of style and thought.The first thing I noticed was Shoe Bouquet, which is literally a giant bouquet of women’s high heel shoes in the center of the gallery floor. I kind of read it as shoes (things) being the new love language.

Not far off is Double Headed Gas Snake; a found-object sculpture comprising of two intertwined gas pumps, the nozzles of which are suspended in midair as if being held by an invisible person next to their invisible car. It really seemed to communicate the lack of self in a high consumer society. Without the constant replenishment of material power, our identities are slowly becoming that which we buy and own. Sorry, I know that was kind of a downer…think of kittens.

Upon further examination of his wall work, I noticed a few of his more colorful prints reflecting that curious dichotomy of serious kitsch that was kind of my first response to his three-dimensional art. While Cole is best known for his found-object sculptures, he finds all sorts of ways to incorporate that object into a two-dimensional print or drawing, like the textured pattern of a steam iron base. As you walk around the gallery, this scorch mark shows up everywhere; it’s branded on several prints (some real burns and some ink) and all over an old ironing board displayed high up on the gallery wall.

Cole finds a way to tie together African ritual with American consumerism with works like his mixed media triptych, Man Spirit Mask. The first frame is a black and white image of his face, with the embossed steam holes of a hot iron as positive space, which gives the impression of scarification; a spiritual ritual. The next frame is a silkscreen, and a positive version of the same size scorch on a blank white frame in the same position as in the last. Cole explains that the scorch mark represents the spirit because when you look at a hot iron, you can’t tell it’s hot, but when you press it down on a piece of paper, you see the scorch mark, and know that it’s hot. The third and final frame is an upside-down copy of the first image of his face, except the scorch mark is replaced with a ceremonial mask, of the same size and shape, that would have been used in a spiritual ritual to invite a spirit to come through the wearer.

I would have some great photos to show you since they’ve never had an issue with non-flash photography before, but the security guard came over and told me Willie had specifically asked not to let people take pictures in there (this is the part where you say: man, the suspense is killing me…now I have to go!), and I wanted to honor that, so these are from the museum website:

Man Spirit Mask    WillieCole05_med

This exhibit is free and will be up and running until December 15, so you have no excuse not to go. And there’s a bunch of other stuff at the Weatherspoon besides this, so if for some reason you don’t like it, you can always go the Art Redux exhibit. And if you don’t like that, well then there’s a nifty little gift shop where you can buy a $185 cookie jar in the shape of a bear.

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