Afterburn a serious show with a funny personality

2:47:47 PM CDT - Thursday, September 08, 2005

By Shannon Littlejohn

Willie Cole found a discarded and streetwise household iron one day back in the 1970s, took it home and thought about it. Then he photographed it.

Its faceplate was a pleasing almond shape; the young African-American artist could see an African mask, a face, a boat. Then he began studying the history of the iron and got caught up in its relationship to Africans' history in America.

He couldn't shake the image of the "colored" ironing ladies, from the time of slavery clear into the 1950s and '60s, working in white homes across the nation. In fact, he likes to point out, an African American woman - Sarah Boone - patented a major improvement to the ironing board in the 1893.

"That history got me to take it as my icon," said Cole, in an interview at the Ulrich Museum of Art on opening day of his eclectic exhibit there, "Afterburn - Willie Cole: Selected Works 1997-2004."

The New Jersey-based sculptor is known for fusing the American culture of consumerism with West African traditions of magic and animism. His show celebrates the discarded items of American society and features sculptures, installations and wall works, some of which are decorated with the scorch marks a very hot iron can make.

"I live inside very strange beliefs," said Cole, with good humor.

Humor, whimsy and delight do come to play in all of his art.

Anthropology student Gary Gimpel and his dad, Lester, were found in the gallery on opening day viewing one such mix of social statement and fanciful vision. It is a giant chessboard taking up a big chunk of floor space and starring an assemblage of lawn jockeys - yes, those little statues of black men in servant garb who used to wait patiently in white people's yards for a horse to tether.

"I just thought I'd stop by," said Gary Gimpel. "It's a great exhibit."

He pointed to the various stages of tribal dress mixed with American icons and the repainted eyes of the statues.

Lester Gimpel noted the four "fierce warriors," one in each quarter of the board, that wear a mud-packing full of mean-looking nails, and mirrored eyes. Cole would later point out the virtue of having mirrored eyes if you're a warrior.

"If I were making scary faces at that enemy, it would scare me instead," he said.

In another harking to Africa, Cole's graceful antelopes, or chiwari, make for fun and attractive use of old bicycle parts. In a recent Wichita Eagle story, reporter Chris Shull pointed out that their sense of "graceful playfulness and deep spirituality ... perhaps most obviously connects the modern streets of Cole's New Jersey home with the mythical Africa of his ancestors."

This reporter couldn't resist the giant matchstick chicken, and "Abundance" and "Desire," two stunningly beautiful small sculptures that are voluptuous in their shiny porcelain and chrome fixtures.

And there's more. Go see. "Afterburn - Willie Cole: Selected Works 1997-2004" will be on view at the Ulrich Museum of Art through Sunday, Oct. 23. Admission is free. Gallery hours are 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, and 1-5 p.m. Saturday-Sunday.

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