Willie Cole constructs his assemblage sculptures from found everyday objects and imbues them with spiritual power through allusion and metaphor. With an ironic and frequently humorous edge, he consistently fuses elements drawn from his African-American heritage with those of contemporary consumer culture. In the mid-1980s he became preoccupied with the steam iron as a domestic, symbolic, and artistic object and began assembling irons into iconic figural forms reminiscent of tribal art. The idea for the scorch came out of his search for ways to infuse his art with the potency of its African sources.
Cole is a sporadic printmaker who has completed editions in lithography, woodcut, and digital techniques. His most common printmaking practice, scorching, reflects a sculptor’s uniquely physical perspective. In a transfer branding process that constitutes the essence of printmaking, he imprints hot irons in minimal rows, decorative patterns, and figurative shapes on surfaces ranging from canvas and paper to mattress padding and plaster. The scorched “faces” of the irons take on masklike appearances while concurrently suggesting the African ritual of scarification and endowing many of these images with an almost mythic presence. The iron also alludes to Cole’s own background, growing up in Newark, New Jersey, with a mother and a grandmother who worked as housekeepers and regularly asked him to repair their broken irons.
In the early 1990s, Cole began incorporating a variety of irons in one work to allude to distinct tribal associations. In Domestic I.D. IV, he labels each scorch with a commercial brand name to encourage this interpretation, ironically suggesting the tribes of Silex, General Electric, or Sunbeam. The window frame reinforces the domestic references, and the buckling paper calls attention to the searing heat and violence in the work’s creation, adding an overall ominous and poignant overtone.
Publication excerpt from an essay by Wendy Weitman, in Deborah Wye, Artists and Prints: Masterworks from The Museum of Modern Art, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2004, p. 235.