‘Pixels’ artist exhibits at College

‘International Balls 2000,’ one example of artist Willie Cole’s mixed-media exhibition on display in the College Art Gallery, features 136 flag-themed spheres. (Brittany Oldewurtel / Staff Photographer)

The brain behind the balls is back.

Willie Cole, the artist behind last year’s “Pixels” public art installation, has had his work prominently displayed outside the Art and Interactive Multimedia Building since Nov. 2, 2009.

From Oct. 27 to Dec. 8, his work will occupy the interior of the building as well. Cole’s solo exhibition celebrates the two-decade career of an artist who blends African, pop art and minimalist influences over a variety of works – including one featuring 136 painted balls.

“This exhibit is celebrating the public art associated with the building,” said Sarah Cunningham, director of the College art gallery.

The exhibit is also the second of two galleries installed in the new Art & IMM Building to celebrate its grand opening last year. It follows last year’s Alumni Art Gallery.

Working with Cole’s gallerist, Carolyn Alexander, Cunningham chose works from Cole’s collection that would show the artist’s penchant for returning to ideas, playing with scale and working with found objects.

“He’s someone who works across media. Whatever best suits his idea at the time,” Cunningham said.

Some of that media includes a chalkboard, gas hoses and a collection of hairdryers.

“How Do You Spell America? #6” is a chalkboard scrawled with a series of acrostic poems, each spelling “America.”

“A Melting Pot Empire Rejects Immigrants Coming Ashore,” reads one.

Willie Cole’s pieces include ‘Wind Mask'. (Brittany Oldewurtel / Staff Photographer)

“Ask Me Eleven Reasons I Choose America,” reads another.

Some come across as news headlines, some as streams of consciousness. All sentences are written neatly, in chalk, underneath the word AMERICA,that caps the roughly gridded space. “Alien,” “makeup,” “colored” and “engineering” are visible.

Cunningham spoke affectionately of Cole’s habit of returning to an idea “over and over again,” to explore its different aspects.

Cole struggles to literally define America in the first two works. He mines similar territory in his exposition of the iron over five works displayed in this gallery.

Cole has returned to the iron “as both a conceptual motif and mark maker,” according to Cunningham, throughout his career.

“Infestation” catches the eye upon entry. The series of four plywood panels spans 42 inches by 168 inches of the wall space facing the gallery’s door. Iron brand marks speckle the panels, creating the illusion of bugs invading the wood.

The work calls to mind slave branding, according to Cunningham.

Cole features the iron in four other works. Two untitled pieces, known by the words featured in them, “You steam out wrinkles as you iron!” and “You iron with that professional touch!” display 1950s-style advertisements of women over ironing boards. Cole juxtaposes tiny ironing boards over the women’s heads.

This “underscores the iron as the embodiment of domestic work while exploring its anthropomorphic form,” Cunningham wrote in the gallery’s brochure.

Cole crafted two oversized ironing boards from wax and wood, titled “Iron Board I” and “Iron Board II.” The pair hangs on the wall opposite the two iron-women, appearing equally iron board and shield.

‘Kitchen tji wara.’ Cole’s exhibit will be open until Dec. 8 in the College Art Gallery. (Brittany Oldewurtel / Staff Photographer)

According to Cunningham, this serves as an example of Cole’s tendency to experiment with scale, a concept he explored in “Pixels.”

Four creatively arranged found object pieces comprise the rest of the gallery. “Wind Mask” is an “assemblage with hairdryers” — a pile of hairdryers arranged to form a face.

“Kitchen tji wara” is a series of vinyl chairs perched atop a Formica table, arranged in the shape of an antelope. The work blends the African tradition of honoring the antelope with “a kind of classic 1950s” feel, according to Cunningham. Cole grew up in the 1950s in Newark.

Besides serving as a backdrop for his childhood, Newark also gave Cole “Double-Headed Gas Snake,” a 1997 piece. Cole found two abandoned gas hoses near his Newark studio, and manipulated them into a coil with heads raised as if poised to strike.

Cole’s final piece may be the most poignant for College students. “International Balls 2000” features 136 urethane-covered bowling balls, painted to resemble international flags. The piece ascribes a capricious nature to international relations, as the flags appear in the context of a game.

The gallery’s works span 17 years of Cole’s career — from 1989 to 2006. To see what he’s been up to since 2006, just step outside the Art & Interactive Multimedia building.

The installation of “Pixels,” four sparkly spheres outside the Art & IMM building, incited a passionate response at the College last year. The public art inspired campus-wide forums, Facebook groups and “Post-Pixels,” a student art gallery of responses to the work.

For a look at what else Cole’s created, step inside the art gallery from noon to 7 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays or 1 to 3 p.m. Sundays until Dec. 8. The gallery will be closed for Thanksgiving from Nov. 24 to Nov. 28.

Emily Brill can be reached at brill3@tcnj.edu.