Contemporary sculptor, printer, and visual artist Willie Cole’s haunting works blend the familiar with the unexpected. Now that striking creative tension is on view at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study in “Willie Cole: Beauties.”
The exhibit, on display in Byerly Hall’s Johnson-Kulukundis Family Gallery, features a series of prints made from ironing boards that have been crushed, hammered, flattened until they’re a few millimeters thick, covered with ink, and used as plates on a printing press. The ghostly silhouettes shift perceptions and challenge assumptions with their suggestion of the ethereal and the everyday.
“My interest or my habit is to work with objects that have had intimate contact with human beings,” Cole said during a talk prior to the show’s official opening this week. “The things you touch hold onto a part of you. My interest then is to extract and reveal the spirit in any object I use.”
Like so much of Cole’s output, the 24 prints on display resist simple interpretation. Inspired by the women from the eras of Cole’s grandmother and great-grandmother, the works include names such as Anna Mae, Bessie, Calpurnia, Pearl, Queen, and Rose inked in capital letters at the bottom of each piece. The images suggest the artist’s kin — both housekeepers — as well as the generations of African-American women who toiled in domestic work.
But Jennifer Roberts, Radcliffe’s Johnson-Kulukundis Family Faculty Director of the Arts, who was instrumental in bringing Cole’s collection of “Beauties” prints to campus, said they are filled with “contradictory associations.” The prints, she said, call to mind “the sufferance of these women, but also their knowledge and their creativity and their power.”
For Roberts, who is also Harvard’s Elizabeth Cary Agassiz Professor of the Humanities, reminders of violence, trauma, and even death are clear in Cole’s works. The images conjure slave ships, tombstones, shrouds, and mummies, she said, “but other associations also shoulder their way into this scene. They also look like stained-glass windows, shields, veils, bolts of patterned fabric, sentinels, guardians, saints, even surfboards.”