Using the junk that other people in our culture of consumption just throw away – bicycle parts, gasoline nozzles, scraps of galvanized steel, banisters salvaged from an abandoned church, the hood ornament from a Cadillac – Willie Cole creates sculptures and assemblages of surprising beauty and power. The New Jersey-born artist possesses an extraordinary sensitivity to the life and energy in these found materials. Cole seems to have an almost shamanic ability to create ritual objects that allow the attentive viewer to see and feel the evidence of that energy, often drawing on African and Asian forms.
“Anxious Objects: Willie Cole’s Favorite Brands,” is on view at the Birmingham Museum of Art through May 27. A collection of more than 30 mixed-media works, prints, and collages, the show was curated by Patterson Sims of the Montclair (N.J.) Art Museum. Cole – whose work is found in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum in New York, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. – was in town earlier this month to deliver a lecture at the BMA and attend the opening.
Path to transformation
Cole, age 52, was born in Somerville, NJ. He earned a BFA from Manhattan’s School of Fine Arts in 1976 and took anatomy and drawing classes at the Art Students League in New York from 1976 to 1979. Through the 1980s, he worked primarily as a painter and illustrator. His professional experience helped to develop his sense of form and color – something that sustains him even now – but the enormous amount of planning and research involved in illustration and painting made him restless.
“Say I want to paint a picture of a man on a horse,” Cole says. “I’ve got to go out and get a picture of a horse, and get a picture of a man, and put them together, draw it out, scale it up.”
He wasn’t consciously seeking spontaneity but he found seeds of inspiration in the streets of Newark, N.J., where he had a studio. Cole started studying the junk he found in trashcans, thrift stores and abandoned warehouses around the industrial city. These cast-off materials seemed to hold the promise of a new phase in his artwork.
During a walk to Newark’s Penn Station one day in 1988, he found the flattened rest plate for a steam iron. He combined it with a car bracket, two heating coils and some rubber tubing – transforming the detritus into an amazing evocation of a helmet headdress used by the Senufo people of West Africa. This breakthrough work, Neo-Senufo, is part of the exhibition in Birmingham.
“I’m very interested in innovation, and it’s harder to find innovation in the practice of painting, whereas with sculpture it can be just a matter of changing materials or our ways of looking at it that make it new,” Cole says.
His new medium – and his new materials – lent themselves to a freer process. “I love jazz, and with my sculpture it’s all improvisation,” Cole says. “I don’t make any sketches. I just get a pile of something, and I play with it for a few days.”
This new approach also allowed Cole to channel numerous powerful influences: his study of religion, mythology, and modern physics; Asian art and philosophy; his African-American heritage; and, perhaps most of all, African art, in which Cole has maintained a vital interest since childhood.
Best of all, the materials he wanted were all around him. “I like to be open to life, to be seduced by new materials,” Cole says.
Art critic Harold Rosenberg coined the term “anxious objects” in 1964; he was referring to mixed-media pieces, most of which included disturbing imagery and social commentary, that some viewers might call masterpieces and others call junk. “This can only mean that the art object persists without a secure identity, as what I have called an ‘anxious object,’” Rosenberg wrote.
Cole, however, offers his own, more practical definition. “The ‘anxious object’ is the gem, the single component or element that the bigger things are made out of,” he explains. “So the high heel is the ‘anxious object,’ not the piece I make. And I would call that an ‘anxious object’ because it has a history that excites, that excited me visually, and led me to doing something else.”
The steam iron is just one object for which the artist has found multiple uses. Two of his best pieces using this appliance are Water Window Female Iron Figure and Home Hero, in which Cole uses the bodies and handles of irons to construct power figures similar to those in African tribal art. Cole transforms the humble domestic implement into, among other things, a powerful symbol of the feminine, drawing on his experience of being raised by women and asked to repair irons.
The appliance is as much a tool as it is a subject – Cole often heats irons using hotplates or open flame and adds scorch marks to prints and mixed-media works. This is the source of the term “favorite brands” in the exhibition title, along with the fact that Cole’s work contains numerous comments about consumerism.
In Domestic Shield I, IV, and XI, Cole uses scorches to turn ironing boards into evocations of African shields. In G.E. Mask and Scarification, positive and negative images of the pattern of holes in a G.E. iron are sandblasted onto glass over photos of Cole’s face, similar to African body scarification.
Cole uses scores of old electric hair dryers in Air in Remission, which evokes a mandala or wheel of life, and in Wind Mask East, which recreates the animated faces typical of Sri Lankan temple masks.
Some of Cole’s pieces are overtly political, including Gas Snake with Blue Nozzle, an eerie embodiment of our thirst for petroleum. House and Field, in the words of curator Sims, “Africanizes” the loaded symbols of black lawn jockeys. Stowage, Cole’s largest print, uses the motifs of ironing boards and steam iron patterns to evoke the layout of a slave ship, with the different brands of irons representing different African tribes.
In Pleasure, Cole uses broken pieces of plumbing fixtures to create an altarpiece to honor Ganesha, the Hindu deity of pleasure and remover of obstacles. The piece was created while Cole was an artist-in-residence at the Kohler factory in Wisconsin where bath and kitchen products are manufactured.
“My studio was in the warehouse, so they had all the toilets stacked up, all around, palettes and palettes, all glistening whites and pinks and blues,” Cole says. “When I walked through there, I was like, man, to me I was in India where you see those kinds of temples, so when I made my piece, it just came out that way, but I didn’t sit down thinking I was going to make that. I’m just improvising.”
One of Cole’s favorite raw materials is women’s high-heeled shoes, which he buys by the pound. He put together hundreds of them to construct a throne in Made in the Philippine. He used shoes and a cut-off dining table to build an altar to the Buddhist protector figure Mahakala in Sole Protector. He uses a screw gun to affix shoes to round pieces of plywood and create another beautiful mandala in Pretty in Pink.
Cole notes that individual objects can achieve a collective power when grouped together.
“It all has to do with how one drop of water can be wet and glistening but in an ocean of water it is a much more powerful thing,” Coles says. “The individual loses its identity, but it gains power in the collective.”
I asked him which pieces in the exhibition show this type of transformation most powerfully. “There’s quite a few,” Cole says. “Soul Protector is a good piece, a good transformation, a deliberate attempt to create a spiritual sensation for the viewer. The elements disappear in a lot of works, but especially in the Soul Protector, I’d say the shoes disappear.”
Some critics have referred to Cole’s work as “accessible,” and I asked him if he agreed. “No, I don’t think I put much stock in it, because I have experienced people not seeing things,” Cole says. “It’s accessible, but it’s not easily readable sometimes.”
“Everybody sees things differently,” Cole says. “Some people will look at my work and only see the objects. They won’t see the transformation. It took me a while to realize that, but there are people who have not seen it, or it takes them longer to see it.”
Cole has some advice for viewers who wish to get the most out of his work. “I find that you can experience a visual transformation easiest if you’re relaxed,” he says.
One of Cole’s goals in his artwork is to help people break out of “the accepted, agreed reality.”
“I just want to help people see differently,” he says. “I was telling somebody the other day, when I went to art school, it was not about art theory. It was more like spirit and shamanism. And of course it was also sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. But nowadays, it’s all theory. To me, a lot of the art, especially by people younger than myself, doesn’t have any feeling. It’s just all concept, whereas I’m very interested in creating a transforming spiritual experience, you know, like I’m the gateway to the next world.”