Treasures from the Vault: Willie Cole

Sachi Yanari-Rizzo, Curator of Prints and Drawings

The last time Willie Cole’s work was out on view in the Print and Drawing Study Center, a high school student walked in and stood transfixed in front of Man Spirit Mask.  He whispered, “Wakanda”.  The creators of the movie Black Panther used motifs and forms from different African cultures in their depiction of the fictional Wakanda.  Likewise, the artist Willie Cole references African rituals and sculpture in his works to add layers of meaning.  I loved how this movie and artwork could make such a personal connection for him. 

Image of a Black man's face inverted and superimposed over a scorched iron pattern.
Willie Cole, American, b. 1955. Man from Man, Spirit, Mask. Photoetching, embossing, and hand tinting, 1999. Museum purchase with funds provided by the Hamilton Circle, 2001.04.a-c. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

A perceptual engineer is what Cole prefers to call himself because likes to challenge us to see everyday things in new ways.  A father of two, he enjoys mentioning that his son always watched Transformers and played with the toys, which Cole found inspiring.  He in turn transforms discarded objects into sculptures, drawings, and prints.  Some might compare Cole to artists, such as Robert Rauschenberg and Arman, who used throwaway objects from consumer culture.  Dada artist Man Ray’s Gift (1921), an iron with tacks, also comes to mind as a predecessor.   Cast off materials were readily available, but Cole focuses on only a select few objects that speak to him.  In his hands irons, blow dryers, high-heeled shoes, and plastic water bottles change into anthropomorphic forms making associations with African culture, domestic labor, and religious ritual.  

One of his favorite go-to objects from his personal iconography is the steam iron.  Ironically, Cole lived in Iron Bound, a Newark neighborhood where he had his first studio.  Previously, this studio space was a sweatshop where a lot of ironing was done, and ironing boards were abandoned and left there.  Irons have a rich cultural history and relate to the Cole’s own personal heritage.  His great grandmother and grandmother were domestics, a role commonly assigned to women of color in American society as maids, nannies, or house slaves. 

A Black hand holds an iron aloft. Lines come off the iron, as if showing heat, onto a black figure with arms raised.
Willie Cole, American, b. 1955. Steamed Man. Lithograph, 2017. Museum Purchase, 2018.85. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

The steam iron features prominently in Man Spirit Mask, which consists of three individual parts to create a triptych.  The first image, man, uses the artist’s face with distinctive embossing, recalling African ritual marking or scarification. After closer examination, we realize that the markings form a pattern of steam-holes and slits from the underside of a household iron.  The steam-hole patterns are unique to a brand, whether it be Proctor Silex, Sunbeam, or General Electric. Cole likens them to different tribes.

Willie Cole, American, b. 1955. Man, Spirit, Mask. Photo-etching and woodcut (left), silkscreen with lemon juice and scorching (center), photo-etching and woodcut (right), 1999. Museum Purchase with funds provided by the Hamilton Circle, 2001.04.a-c. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

The second image resembles a large-scale scorched marking from an iron, the spirit of his object.  The imprint’s outline is indistinct and fiery.  In other examples of his scorches, Cole repeats the form to build different shapes or decorative patterns, not unlike Adinkra cloth from Ghana.  The third image is abstract, reminiscent of a tribal mask or shield, but we see that it is a view of an iron with the handle side up.  It is the way that the spirit is contained or the means of being possessed by the spirit.

Scorching and marking may bring to mind the branding of African slaves.  Cole’s work also relates to West African spiritual beliefs; Ogun is the powerful god of iron and war among the Yoruba tribe.  Imposing an African god upon a Western image hearkens back to African slaves who secretly worshipped their traditional gods in the form of Christian saints in the New World. The iron possesses abstract and functional qualities which, paired with the minimalist form, are linked to the functional aspect and simplicity of design of many African sculptures.

Cole received his bachelor’s degree from The School of Visual Arts, New York, in 1976 and was the subject of numerous solo exhibitions, including those at the Museum of Modern Art, the Newark Museum, and the St. Louis Art Museum.  He was the artist-in-residence at the Capp Street Project, The Contemporary in Baltimore, and the Pilchuck Glass School and has received awards and grants from the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation and the Joan Mitchell Foundation.  His works are in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art; Whitney Museum of American Art; Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; Milwaukee Art Museum; National Gallery of Art; Saint Louis Art Museum; Philadelphia Museum of Art; and the Walker Art Center.

Come visit the Print & Drawing Study Center at FWMoA Tuesday-Friday, 11:00am-3:00pm, or by appointment.

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