Willie Cole recycles musical instruments into exceptional sculptures
At the entrance to Willie Cole’s no chains, a peacock of piano keys welcomes visitors from the center of the room. Instead of a rainbow plume, the New Jersey artist layered sharp, flat black objects over an array of white keys, gold pedal fragments including his beak and claws. Although it is not a songbird, the piece nevertheless sets a soft tone for the entire gallery of Alexandre and Bonin, strutting between listening and looking.
The show is Cole’s latest foray into assemblage at the Soho Pillar. For this show, the artist has partnered with Yamaha, whose recycling program donates stained instruments that have not passed final inspection. The new acoustic guitars are opened up, split into pieces, and rearranged into body shapes, with all proceeds from sales going to the music department at Arts High School, Cole’s alma mater in Newark.
Known for his large-scale installations made up of water bottles, hair dryers and women’s shoes, Cole once again shows his talent for seeing life everywhere. Two musicians made entirely of split guitar bodies appear to serenade onlookers from a corner of the gallery, but their tune is drowned out by car horns and ambulance sirens outside Broome Street. It is reminiscent of the downtown folk, jazz and blues scenes of the mid-20th century, before luxury shopping took over the neighborhood. Importantly, Cole created both pieces with guitars of two different shades and blended them into each body, giving them common characteristics. It makes me wonder if these instrumentalists, titled “Strummer” and “Picker” (2022), are longtime bandmates or just bonding over a momentary jam session.
In front of them, two rooms constructed with sleek black guitar parts look like busts of human heads, their teeth made of tuning pegs, neck tabs, tailpieces eyes and bridge peg hair . Cole even punches electronic preamps to create ear holes. Given the recent discourse around black representation in sculptural busts, the works subtly illuminate the long record of cultural appropriation by white artists.
“I’m more of a perceptual engineer,” Cole told Hyperallergic in 2013. “I change the way people see everyday objects.” In this same interview, he describes his passion for music, in particular the guitar, noting that his art is an improvisation on the “visual harmonics” of everyday objects. This most triumphantly manifests in a huge mandala made of guitar necks, titled “Dial-a-Tune” (2022) – a reference to ancient answering machines that played music for callers. At the center of its ornate design, a metal hard-bodied banjo alludes to a tough yet reflective core. Despite the title of the exhibit, nickel-wound strings are present in all guitars.
Time itself is a recycling process for Cole, whose free spirit transcends linearity in his digs into art and music history. He confronts it directly in a more recent piece in a back office of the gallery, entitled “The birth of the blues” (2022). Two shirtless black models gaze down at the ground with black guitars placed above their heads, resembling the wooden yokes imposed on enslaved Africans. Behind their backs, white chains bind their hands, their torsos submerged in white rice. This sublime piece listens to the political ties that still bind aesthetics in the United States and desperately need to be severed.
Willie Cole: no conditions continues at Alexander and Bonin (59 Wooster Street, Second Floor, Soho, Manhattan) through May 27. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.