Arlington, Texas

Willie Cole

Center For Research In Contemporary Art

The modest survey of works from 1990 to 1993 in “Willie Cole: Iconic Structures,” evoked the considerable friction between subjective experience and socially imposed identity. Retaining vestigial associations of race, class, and gender, the worn-out found objects Cole uses for raw material in his sculptures generate layers of politically charged narrative complexities, yet the quirky humor of the pieces never allows Cole’s authorial voice to be easily reduced to unimaginative sociological explanations.

Cole’s African-American identity informs the reconstructed ironing boards of Domestic Shields, 1992, which he scorched with steam irons in patterns that resemble West African motifs. As shields, the objects recall masculine associations of warrior and tribal culture, but as ironing boards, they become icons of devalued domestic labor, branded with the repetitive drudgery of traditional women’s work. Yet they simultaneously reference the history of the found object in Modern art (particularly Man Ray’s Cadeau) and remind us of Duchamp’s suggestion that, since ordinary things are now in museums, famous paintings should be used as ironing boards. The seamlessness of these multiple cultural meanings and implicit critiques is achieved in a sculptural concentrate that enlists formal elegance to narrative ends.

The feminist subtext of Cole’s ironing boards becomes more complex in Winged-tipped Ibeji II, 1993, a goofy 31-inch-high figurelike assemblage of women’s shoes that stands on a pair of cheap white patent-leather men’s footwear. The down-at-the-heels desire implied by the materials was particularly resonant in the context of the title’s pun on gender fetishes (gallery notes indicated that it refers to a Yoruban practice of giving a spirit fetish to a surviving twin in the event of his brother’s death). This sense of mediated erotic tension is made even more explicit in Screaming Venus, 1993, in which high heels are used as modular forms to compose a stylized kneeling figure with pendulous breasts and a gaping mouth, a remarkable object that at once embraces and distances itself from masculine desire and African ethnic identity. Cole’s strongest work plainly acknowledges the self-contradictory possibilities of such a play of intentions. For example, his tribute to Civil Rights heroine Rosa Parks is a snarling black panther with white fangs and red lips, again made of high-heeled shoes.

When the pieces communicated less of this self-contradictory impulse, however, the work began to seem less engaging. In Black and White and Read All Over, 1993, a U.S. flag is stretched like a casually made vertical-stripe painting and folded at the top of the stretcher, with only a bit of the blue field visible. One letter of the word “America” appears on each of the red stripes. Descending from each letter is a word beginning with the same letter, forming a series of small horizontal narratives such as “Armed Muslims evacuate residents in Christian areas.” While these pieces were evidence of Cole’s wit, the work ultimately seemed didactic and programmatic, unable to maintain the reflexive balance of other works in the show.

Michael Odom