Willie Cole’s art repurposes detritus in culturally symbolic works

by Jordan Green

The immediate impression upon entering the gallery is striking: twin gas hoses and nozzles fashioned like cobras rearing to strike, a giant flower composed of a radiating array of discarded high-heeled shoes and a bicycle reconstituted as an African antelope mask.

As often as not the materials commandeered by the artist are the discarded detritus of a stratified industrial past that are refashioned into totems of family homage or deeper cultural histories.

The Weatherspoon in Greensboro is the second stop for the touring exhibit, following a stand at the James W. and Lois I. Richmond Center for Visual Arts in Kalamazoo, Mich. Doll said she has long admired Cole’s art, and jumped at the opportunity to showcase it in Greensboro.

“It’s very smart work,” she said. “It talks about issues of identity, particularly in his case African-American identity. It’s very accessible and inventive.”

As effective as Cole’s use of shoes and gasoline hoses are as a material and vessel of meaning, the most ubiquitous material and central motif of his work is the steam iron.

As a teenager in Newark in the late 1960s, Cole ironed his own shirts, describing himself as a “snappy dresser” in the mold of Motown stars of the day, according to a catalogue for the show written by curator Patterson Sims. But it wasn’t until the late 1980s, when Cole discovered a flattened iron plate walking between his loft and the Newark train station and found a scorch mark in his loft, that the rich possibilities of the artifact dawned on him.

The resemblance between the steam-iron plate and an African mask is most immediately apparent, but the imprint also crops up as a slave ship, a representation of the Virgin of Guadalupe and part of a radiating floral pattern. And in a self- portrait of the artist, the scorch marks of an iron are overlaid on his visage to suggest tribal scarification marks.

Por la Mesa de Mi Abuelita is a large paper doily utilizing the aforementioned steam-iron floral pattern embossed with an image of a woman hovering over an ironing board.

“Traditionally, a lot of African-American women served as household help or earned money by taking in ironing for other people,” Doll said. “I think that’s one of the historic meanings for Willie.”

Doll said she particularly hopes that students of women’s studies and African-American studies will take an interest in the exhibit.

“I think people will find the show fun, but that there are layers of meaning,” she said.

Exemplifying the duality between delightful invention and deeper sociopolitical meaning is Double-Headed Gas Snake. Sims wrote that the two dueling cobras connected by a single hose “conveys the twisted regional strife that has accompanied the international and American and Arab hostilities.”

Doll appraised the snakes, seeming to sway in a languid dance.

“They might bring to mind snakes in the grass,” she said. Then she added, “They look so friendly.”