Dada Diaspora

By Cutler, Jody B. | Afterimage, March-April 2011 | Go to article overview
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Dada Diaspora

Cutler, Jody B., Afterimage

Deep Impressions: Willie Cole Works on Paper

The James Gallery of the Graduate Center, The City University of New York

New York City

September 21, 2010-January 8, 2011

Willie Cole is best known for assemblage sculptures and experimental prints that transform prosaic: objects into symbolic representations of African American identity. The most recognizable object and image in Cole's oeuvre over the past two decades is the household steam iron, in which Cole has discovered rich content related to the diaspora, from Yorubaland to black female labor in the Americas to his own chance encounter with a cache of abandoned irons and ironing boards near his first, studio in his native Newark, New Jersey. Cole has employed the irons not only as readymades, but as printing tools that have yielded some of his most, memorable works to date, as seen in his recent retrospective of works on paper organized by veteran curator Patterson Sims.


Cole began exploring the metaphoric and formal potential of iron scorching in the early 1990s. In Domestic ID II (1991), heated steam irons were pressed, tapered end pointed down, into thick paper to suggest sepia-toned masks ornamented with distinctive perforation patterns. Arranged in rows and framed by a mullioned window, each floating image is labeled with the brand name of its iron matrix, as in an ethnographic display. The singed contours of the rusty imprints enhance the faded-photograph illusion. This work broaches the social mutability of gender associations in its synthesis of "New World" women's work and mask-making, traditionally an exclusively male domain in most West African cultures (along with wood and metalwork).

Raid (1999) is a chaotic, large-scale composition of densely collaged, burnt iron cut-outs a play on abstract painting in the intuitive application of Cole's loaded, signature gesture. By the early '90s, the artist had begun replicating the iron transfers in screen prints and lithographs to introduce color, creating pointy, radiating sunflowers and mandalas, several of which were on view at the James Gallery. Among these more decorative works, Pot La Mesa de Mi Abuelita x 4 (2008) is a tour de force, an intricate stencil print cut into handmade paper with a "water stream" technique, simulating a floral lace tablecloth. Here, the legacies of European colonialism, gender stereotypes in art, and Cole's intense aesthetic interest in innovative techniques are intertwined.

Stowage (1997) is a nine-foot-long monochromatic woodblock print in which a grainy background becomes a rippling sea. The central image was formed from an ironing board--its embossed dots embedded in the. matrix--and reads as a bird's-eye, cutaway diagram of a slave ship. A border of medallions bearing differentiated iron emblems evokes the diverse groups brought together in the Middle Passage. Cole's theme and appropriation here is part of an iconographic legacy in postmodern African American art spanning many styles and generations. Throughout the past three decades, Betye Saar, Edouard Duval-Carrie, and Hank Willis Thomas, among others, have also collectively brought the Black Atlantic to the center of the art scene in the United States.

Cole's closest artistic predecessor is David Hammons in his punning, dadaist take on spades (shovels), basketball hoops, cheap wine bottles, and other used materials.

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