New York

Willie Cole

Brooke Alexander

“Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it” was Jasper Johns’ characteristically poker-faced suggestion to young artists. If Willie Cole has taken this advice, he has also taken it to another level, fusing formal repetition with a critique of the repetitious drudgery that has too often remained the province of African-Americans since their forced immigration here almost four hundred years ago.

In these terms, the best works in the show are the 12 ironing boards Cole has seared with a variety of irons and leaned against the gallery wall. Entitled “Domestic Shield I-XII,” 1992, this series possesses an elegance of means that recalls an efficient, incisive solution to a problem in theoretical physics. A large part of the pleasure of such solutions stems from their simplicity. The patterns left by the hot irons work several transformations simultaneously. Most immediately, the ironing boards become African shields. But this switch, accomplished with great deftness, amounts to more than the recovery of a kind of generalized ethnic origin. Sites of exploitative domestic labor, the ironing boards bear its marks while also suggesting resistance to exploitation. Like signs of a collective African-American memory, the scorches vaguely recall thebranding of slaves, ritual scarification, and the etchings of packed slave ships. Cole’s Africa, as spiritual origin and refuge, is evoked by the real, material traces of America’s repeated abuse of African-Americans.

The ironing boards-cum-shields represent a fissure in African-American identity: a resistance/attraction to Africa, represented by the gendered opposition of iron and shield. Yet, if only at a formal level, the series verges on closing the internal division that separates the sexes and threatens to derail the larger struggle. Simply by raising to a vertical plane what was designed (conditioned) to be used (exploited) on the horizontal (in submission), Cole has symbolically fused the struggles of women and African-Americans.

A large part of the field in which Cole is working at present has clearly been defined by David Hammons’ politicized punning with found materials. The sculpture in the remainder of the show banks on the viability of Hammons’ trenchant (though at times sledgehammer) facture. All of the pieces exhibited are visually arresting, but no other quite approaches the fecund concision and quiet drama of “Domestic Shield I-XII.”

Thad Ziolkowski