Chicago

Willie Cole

Peter Miller Gallery

Willie Cole forages through detritus in the form of abandoned household appliances and recombines their parts into totems with unexpected anthropomorphic power. His is an art of recognition, rehabilitation, and revelation; implied in his recastings is a commentary on the ineluctible presence of the human image in virtually everything made by man, including, ironically, the remnants of throw-away culture. Cole looks at a telephone and sees an intriguing sign for the human face, looks at junked blowdryers and imagines an evocative mask; he stacks and reassembles irons and their cords into animated figural sculptures. The original aura and symbolic charge of his source materials are as crucial for Cole as the object resulting from their amendation. Discovering new meanings in seemingly exhausted utilitarian sources, Cole’s art constitutes both a form of cultural critique and a kind of spiritual reinvestment.

Entitled “Household Gods & Domestic Demons,” Cole’s exhibition deflates the notion that modern technology is inherently abstract and depersonalized. His act of scavenging releases powerful animistic tendencies, recognizing the potentially fetishistic nature of our accoutrements. In Wind Mask East, 1991, Cole layers the plastic casings of dozens of blowdryers into a stark but manic visage, extrapolating anthropomorphic possibilities inherent in their own design. His agenda is not to play off of visual curiosities or to create ambiguous juxtapositions, nor is it to delight in the displacement of his objets trouvés; rather, as an African-American who is very much aware of the ramifications of his own heritage, he forages through the effluvia of modern American culture and turns it in on itself, taking items that were once trash and coaxing them to reveal their nature as talismans. Cole stoops to conquer, articulating a powerful configuration using only the shards left to him by the dominant culture.

In a second body of work called “Scorches,” Cole sears the surface of his fabric supports, ironing boards or shapes that suggest mattresses arranged on the wall, with the bottom of an iron. In Double You, 1991, he uses scorch marks to paint, replicating the patterns in a historical print illustrating the most economical and efficient way to transport slaves by ship to the New World. Cole burns this image into two mattresslike supports decorated with vignettes illustrating colonial American occupations—harness maker, ship’s carver, wheelwright. He literally scalds the myth of amiable colonial existence, reminding us everywhere that American history and culture partook at its source in the subjugation of others.

John Yau