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Feb. 25 Art Minute: Willie Cole, Man, Spirit, and Mask

Art Minute, Art of the Week, toledo museum of art
Willie Cole (American, born 1955) Man, Spirit, and Mask. Photo-etching, embossing, hand coloring, screenprinting, scorching, and woodcut with lemon juice, 1999. Printed at The Rutgers Center for Innovative Print and Paper, New Brunswick, New Jersey. Frederick B. and Kate L., Shoemaker Fund, 2000. 50a–c. Wolfe Gallery

Willie Cole offers piercing social commentary without sacrificing aesthetic beauty. This triptych includes some of Cole’s signature elements: the self-portrait, the use of scorching, and the domestic iron. The first panel presents Cole’s face, embossed with the outline of an iron. The steam vents, hand-colored with lemon juice, suggest scarification or branding of the face, a practice in many African tribal traditions. In the second panel, the image of the iron has literately been scorched into the paper. Lemon juice is again added, reversing its domestic use as a treatment for scorching when ironing clothes. The third panel flips the artist’s face upside down, overprinted with the iron image and transformed into an African mask. Cole wrote about the iron, “My relationship with it began in 1988 when I spotted one on the street near my Newark studio, all flattened and discarded…. Right away I saw it as an  African mask, more specifically a Dan mask...I brought it into my studio, photographed it, and made a list of all the things it suggested to me,” including the slave trade, domestic servitude, and the spirituality of heat/fire/scorching.

This work is currently on view in the Wolfe Gallery at the Toledo Museum of Art.