For Fire/fly, Willie Cole’s second solo exhibition at Birmingham’s beta pictoris gallery (September 13–October 25), scorching re-emerges as the medium par excellence. Having deployed the iconography of irons’ heating plates over many years, these works mark Cole’s first return to this method in more than a decade.
Influenced by African, Asian, and African American histories and ideologies, in Fire/fly anthropomorphic imagery emerges from layer upon layer of singular patterns burned onto sheets of paper.
Cole references the makes and models of his irons with titles including GE Domestic Warrior and Sunbeam Queen. The work Sunbeam Queen is unique as Cole includes an additional layer of material that becomes “hair”—a cloth burned into and onto the drawing’s surface. In its materiality the cloth represents the hair itself and the significance of hair in the African American community. Think here of the Chris Rock documentary Good Hair or Henry Louis Gates’s essay “In the Kitchen.” Cole’s Sunbeam Queen makes these complexities manifest.
Taken as a whole, Fire/fly feels very holistic. It is not so much a return as an extension, scorching our thinking in the subtle quiet of these new works.