Willie Cole’s art is universal yet profoundly personal. He transforms conventional objects into works of art that conjure collective memories while referencing the artist’s personal identity. Each of the five intaglio impressions of ironing boards in his recent series Five Beauties Rising is a poetic document, recording both the singular existence of a specific object and the larger historical narrative it represents.
To make these works—and the other 22 prints in the Beauties series—Cole and the printers at Highpoint Editions began with ironing boards that Cole acquired from the Salvation Army and Craigslist. Using vehicles, cinder blocks and brute force, they flattened—ironed out, one might say—the boards, then further reduced them by repeatedly running them through an etching press until they were a mere eighth-to-sixteenth of an inch in depth. Finally, the boards were inked intaglio and printed on white paper. Each reveals its own character, its blemishes and scars, and each has been given a name, printed in relief at the bottom of each sheet—Savannah, Dot, Anna May, Queen and Fannie Mae.
As in his other works, Cole identifies and explores the mutability of these objects. His sculptures, accumulations of everyday items such as shoes or irons, recall Dada readymades, but are infused with the spirituality of African tribal masks, the transformational aesthetic of Surrealism, and the Pop Art-driven critique of consumer culture. In Five Beauties Rising, he transformed the ironing board’s workaday surface into a template through compression. The metal thus creased and distorted and marked by dents and scratches from daily use, produces an ethereal, x-ray-like image. The names printed below each ironing board evoke a narrative, suggesting life behind the ghostly representation, and Cole’s choice of names evokes a very specific kind of life—those of the generations of African-American women working in other people’s homes. Some belonged to his own ancestors who worked as slaves or domestic servants; others he culled through onomastic research.
Irons and ironing boards appear frequently in Cole’s work. In his well-known “scorch” pieces, irons acts as both templates and press, marking the paper with heat rather than ink. With Five Beauties Rising, he guides the ironing board to its own type of imprint. The ink picks up the manufactured grooves and grids of the board and the alterations generated by the flattening process. The print is a record of the object’s passage through the world—its life of quotidian utility and its final incorporation into art.
Cole has imbued these ironing boards with a new aesthetic and spiritual value, but their transformation is not yet complete: the artist plans to repurpose most of the 27 boards from the full series as sculpture, continuing their metamorphosis.