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Friday, August 10, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Exhibit Review

Ironing out the contradictions in our consumer culture

Exhibition review

"Anxious Objects: Willie Cole's Favorite Brands," mixed-media works by Willie Cole, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays (until 8 p.m. Thursdays), noon-5 p.m. Sundays, through Sept. 3, Frye Art Museum, 704 Terry Ave., Seattle; free (206-622-9250 or www.fryemuseum.org).

Willie Cole and Pamela McClusky, Seattle Art Museum curator of African and Oceanic Art, will discuss the artist's work at 7 tonight at the Frye.

After seeing the exhibition of Willie Cole's powerful and clever mixed-media works on paper and found-object sculptures, I came home and studied my iron. I examined its patterns and its overall shape and I thought about the profound meanings that can be associated with an iron: domesticity and women's work; issues of class and race and who is working for whom; progress and consumerism; and the American way of life.

Cole is quite familiar with these associations with irons, and he has developed a few more of his own, having spent almost two decades working with irons, parts of irons, the scorch-marked and printed patterns from irons, and, for a little variety, ironing boards. Actually, Cole does work with other things, too — shoes, bicycle parts, hair dryers and faucets — the commonplace, utilitarian stuff of our daily lives that Cole has often found on the street.

But irons seem to warm the artist's heart. The organizer of this exhibition, Patterson Sims, a former curator at the Seattle Art Museum and current director of the Montclair Art Museum in New Jersey, states that, for Cole, irons evoke memories of growing up in a matriarchy; Cole's childhood home in New Jersey was governed by his mother, grandmother and great-grandmother.

As the young man of the house, Cole was asked to do fix-it jobs, like repairing the household iron, and, now, as a midcareer artist, he has continued to tinker with the components and meanings of irons. An iron placed on its side can become a boat, an iron with the point down is a face, and with the point up, a house. Ironing boards are protective shields, and the scorched patterns of irons become tribal markings.

While some artists, most notably Pablo Picasso and Marcel Duchamp, transformed the meanings and contexts of the everyday objects that they used in their art, Cole relies on the existing associations of his chosen objects, his "favorite brands," if you will. He heats up their existing meanings and impresses new meanings upon them, often by reconfiguring the objects into wholly new forms.

And yet the "new" forms he creates often evoke associations with old, traditional objects and other cultures. Cole has reconfigured hundreds of shoes into the form of a Mahakala, the Buddhist protector/destroyer figure, surrounded by its arching flame of redemption. In Cole's skilled hands, bicycle parts become a mother antelope figure with her child on her back — a tji wara, the antelope spirit headdresses made by the Bamana people of Mali. And the scorched print of an iron, turned on its side, becomes the echo of a diagram of a slave ship, with each steam hole of the iron representing a human life.

The images and forms that he emulates or approximates (he doesn't replicate) are carefully, but instinctively, chosen. Cole has been profoundly influenced by his African-American heritage and by his time spent looking at African and Asian works of art. He seems drawn toward sacred, protective or menacing objects — objects that have a spiritual, transformative function within their cultures. These powerful forms and functions often clash with the consumer-oriented, quotidian materials that he uses, and this clash becomes an important part of the work.

This complexity, ambiguity or even anxiety about meaning, about what is old and what is new, and about the function of art are referred to in the title of the show: "Anxious Objects." Cole borrowed the phrase "Anxious Objects" from the critic Harold Rosenberg, who used it in the 1960s to describe the uncertainty and disquiet involved in making and viewing modern art.

In Cole's work, the anxiousness of the objects seems like a restless energy — the found objects sometimes seem barely contained, as if waiting to reassemble themselves into a different form the minute your back is turned. According to Sims, Cole has spent so much time and energy with his favored materials, the discarded products of a consumer culture, because he has sought to "find within these everyday, American objects the spiritual essence that makes his life profound."

Although the impact of some of Cole's works is subdued by the organization of the exhibition (some of the smaller works get a bit lost in a hallway outside the two main spaces of the show), the opportunity to see this exhibition — the first complete survey of Cole's work — shouldn't be thrown away.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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