When T.S. Eliot published The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock in 1915, he was decried as a plagiarist, not a poet, since he would create collages out of different quotes and perspectives to establish a broader theme or mood. In his masterpiece The Waste Land, Eliot’s nervous breakdown became a metaphor for the decline and fall of the West, the poet’s voice adding to a swirling chorus of others throughout history and literature.
New Jersey artist Willie Cole is another creator who creates emotionally powerful collages out of layers of meaning and allusion. His brilliant solo show FIRE/FLY, currently on display at beta pictoris gallery on 2nd Avenue North, draws on cultural touchstones that not only say a great deal about the black experience in America, but also about American mythology itself.
Although he branches out in other interesting ways, much of Cole’s work in the exhibition is scorches on various surfaces, made with clothing irons that he honors in the titles to his works. The scorches create a variety of figures, from warriors that look like Yoruba figurines to a descending “nude” with the sensuality and casual contrapposto of Josephine Baker. In one particularly breathtaking case, he depicts a “Sunbeam Queen” in repose, her thick beehive of hair made out of a scorched piece of fabric.
While visually striking on the surface, it’s the deeper meanings that make Cole’s work extraordinary. He didn’t choose clothing irons as a tool on accident, of course. On the first layer, the irons represent one aspect of the long history of black servitude in housework – the scorches, then, can be defiant, as in his ¡No Mas! On another level, the irons are a strikingly similar visual echo to the shape of slave ships bearing human chattel to the New World. On yet another level, one of Cole’s beliefs is that the gods of the old country survived and adapted to the mundane realities of the new one, creating a possibility for magic even within captivity.
With all that in mind, the depiction of, say, warrior figures taking up Black Panther-like stances of defense isn’t just a symbol of defiance. With these cultural connotations in tow, each piece is an example of art at its most transformative, turning the most quotidian symbols of tedium or oppression into something imaginative and impassioned.
In addition to his work with scorches, Cole asserts his worldview in other mediums. In an awe-inspiring display of creativity, he assembled piles of discarded high-heeled shoes into bronze statues of goddesses, which are arranged together on a platform in the front room of the gallery. He paints them different colors, which — perhaps unaccountably — gives them different kinds of personalities, or energies. In a similar (but no less impressive) approach, Cole created squatting figures out of irons, which like much of the rest of his work resemble the latent power of Yoruba figures.
The front corners of the gallery contain two coiled firehoses, two fortuitous late additions to an exhibition full of fortuitous late additions. A calligrapher has written passages from the Declaration of Independence on one and the 23rd Psalm on the other. The layers of resonance are obvious here: there’s the potential for both good and evil in the object itself paired with the idealism and hope of the passages written on them, put on display in a city where 50 years ago they were the most powerful symbol of Jim Crow repression.
Cole is on record as saying that he resists being labeled as simply a black artist, since it doesn’t fully represent his artistic output, identity or temperament. That seems like an odd plaint at first, given his subject matter, but it holds up under scrutiny. Cole’s commentary is really about coming to terms with what “African-American” means for both sides of the equation, about how subsuming the cultures of African slaves involuntarily complicated and enriched America’s national mythology. Cole works with unique symbols that suggest rich layers of meaning; there is no country on Earth more symbolically resonant, more ripe with promise or complexity, than America.
beta pictoris shows have long represented an element of magical realism, providing a sort of darker alternative to Naked Art’s sense of whimsy. In light of Cole’s ability to draw so much meaning and wonder out of such ordinary objects, FIRE/FLY may be the most engrossing, unforgettable example yet.
beta pictoris gallery is located at 2411 2nd Ave. N. For more information, call (205) 413-2999.