Willie Cole's ecological interventions turn trash into art

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Willie Cole's ecological interventions turn trash into art
The artist Willie Cole and Colleen Gutwein O’Neal, the curator of the show “Perceptual Engineering,” which looks at familiar objects in a fresh way, at Express Newark in Newark, N.J., Feb. 14, 2023. Cole invited the art community in Newark to reimagine objects that would otherwise be destined for a landfill, to look at them in a fresh, imaginative way. (Rachel Vanni/The New York Times)

by Laura van Straaten



NEWARK, NJ.- Artist Willie Cole has created two colossal new sculptures and generated a provocative group exhibition stemming from an unusual open call asking artists to transform objects destined for landfill into something imaginative and new.

The resulting works are in two exhibitions on view at Express Newark, a center for socially engaged art and design affiliated with Rutgers University-Newark, where Cole, 68, is an artist-in-residence. They speak to his longtime practice of using ready-made objects as raw materials, and his preoccupation with environmental crises.

Cole’s own show, “Spirit Catcher and Lumen-less Lantern,” consists of two chandelierlike works, each assembled from more than 3,000 used plastic water bottles collected in Newark, where Cole grew up in the 1960s.

The forms, woven together with metal wire on-site during his residency, with help from Rutgers students and Newark neighbors, speak to Cole’s frustration with the results of the city’s yearslong water crisis: In 2019, the Environmental Protection Agency deemed the city’s water unsafe to drink, and Newark began replacing about 23,000 lines of aging lead pipes. Cole was impelled to address the crisis through his artworks, and specifically the next problem: what to do with the thousands of single-use plastic water bottles distributed by the city, which contribute to the cycle of toxicity and pollution.

While Cole was making the water-bottle sculptures with Rutgers students in his apprentice-style studio workshop, he generated a creative prompt asking them to choose and disassemble a found object “into as many pieces as possible” and then invent something new from those pieces. His fellow teacher, Colleen Gutwein O’Neal, adapted the prompt into an open call for artists in the region.

The result is a modest exhibition of sculptures by jury-selected artists presented alongside Rutgers students. Curated by O’Neal, it is on view through June 30 at Express Newark. (The director, Salamishah Tillet, is a New York Times critic-at-large.)

Like Cole’s water bottles, many of the objects on view — formerly a flashlight, a lamp, a wall clock, a record player, a fan, hair dryers — include plastics and other hard-to-recycle materials.

The group show’s title, “Perceptual Engineering,” is a phrase that has had resonance for Cole since he first heard it decades ago as a way to describe how advertisers “are creating realities to inspire us to buy.” What he means by that phrase, generally in his work and specifically in this show, Cole explains, is “to use what you find without alteration other than perceptual alteration.”

For years, Cole has worked with discarded objects such as shoes (his sculpture “Shine,” made from black high-heeled pumps, is on view in the Metropolitan Museum’s Afrofuturist room) and steam irons. Last year, in New York, he presented a solo show of sculptures made from guitars.

Cole’s newest commission, “Ornithology,” will be unveiled at the new Kansas City International Airport, which officially opens Tuesday. Cole incorporated 164 saxophones to hatch a flock of 12 bird sculptures in homage to jazz legend and locally born hero Charlie (Bird) Parker. He called the project “a real career goose,” laughing at his pun.

During the remaining months of his residency, Cole, who also has work on view at the Knoxville Museum of Art as part of the inaugural Tennessee Triennial (through May 7), invited community members and visitors to make additional sculptures with donated water bottles. He plans for those works to debut in June as part of his new public art commission along Park Avenue in New York City’s Manhattan, for the Fund for Park Avenue.

It’s not always easy to “open up perception” and see familiar objects in a fresh way, Cole says. He urges students to break things and draw each broken part, to examine its silhouette and to reimagine its scale. “You have to look at everything to see what you’re reminded of,” Cole stresses. “Everything can be anything.”

Here are several standouts from “Perceptual Engineering,” excerpted from artist statements submitted with their work.

Benjamin DeCruz, “Bowlegged Plastyle Bot,” 2022

At first, Benjamin DeCruz, a Rutgers student in Cole’s studio workshop at Express Newark, had a hard time with this assignment; as Cole recalls, “He couldn’t walk down the road of transformation.” Ultimately, with Cole’s coaching, DeCruz transmuted a blue flashlight into a standing figure that brims with personality and attitude. “‘Plastyle’ is a play on the words plastic and style,” DeCruz explains. The flair stems largely from his figure’s tilted bowler hat and its somewhat akimbo power pose.

Giovanna Eley, “LV Bralette,” 2021

After a breakup, Giovanna Eley, a bachelor of fine arts graduate of Rowan University in Glassboro, New Jersey, stopped using the counterfeit Louis Vuitton bag that her ex-boyfriend had regifted to her from his mother. “Instead of throwing it out, I thought this was the perfect project to transform — something from the past I want to move on from into something new and unique,” Eley says. A YouTube DIY fashion tutorial inspired Eley, whose multimedia practice has also included creating a corset of steel and casting functional breastplates and daggers in bronze and aluminum, to envision her “LV Bralette.”

Ana Monteiro, “Blooming From Bondage,” 2022




Ana Monteiro transformed a 6-foot-tall floor lamp into a tabletop artwork, with an electrical cord wrapped around its neck, out of which three light bulbs blossom into a flower. The sculpture relates to “yearning for freedom and transmutation in constricting situations,” Monteiro says. As the title suggests, it’s a psychological work about the “B” of BDSM: bondage.

“My work creates an opportunity for viewers to move into a space of tender speculation,” Monteiro says, adding that she sees her artistic output — videos, collage, music, paintings and drawings — as creative “conduits for stored emotional energy, illuminating truths that may have been lingering in shadows.”

Karina Nunez, “Unidentified,” 2022

Karina Nunez describes herself as a big believer in the power of play to achieve self-discovery and creative expansion. She was drawn to a vintage hair dryer and has, here, re-imagined a 1990s diffuser. Nunez called her sculpture “Unidentified” and said it can be “whatever the audience decides it to be.” But her title suggests an unidentified flying object, and — with its topside helicopterlike blades — the sculpture looks ready for a journey aloft.

Samantha Treadwell, “Headphone Jack,” 2022

With “Headphone Jack,” Samantha Treadwell explores our relationship with music, mediated through technology. She transformed a set of headphones into a jack-in-the-box figure wearing headphones while playing a guitar. The designs of everyday objects “often take forms that reference the human body,” Treadwell observes, noting the way the headphones have “joints" to allow them to fold compactly and a “spine” that connects the two earpieces, each with a “skin” of fabric that hides the wiring inside.

Todd Frankenfield, “Rolled,” 2022

Todd Frankenfield, a mixed-media artist based in Easton, Pennsylvania, responded to the open call with enthusiasm, embracing it as an occasion to document with photos the steps he took to disassemble the ubiquitous rough wooden pallet often used to store and transport goods. He stacked the planks into a totemlike sculpture. In his practice, Frankenfield often uses collage and sculpture to examine “nihilism, surrealism, minimalism and the inherently finite property of materials.”

His goal “was to deconstruct and examine an object that has a very specific simple function and remove its contextual value and purpose,” he says, but he purposefully assembled the wood and nails in such a way that “they can be unrolled and put to use.”

Ashanti Haley, “Fraternal Twins: Twins, Placenta, Mother,” 2022

Ashanti Haley plays with architectural, anamorphic and geometric forms in her drawings, painting, sculpture and photography to explore her own “pivotal learning experiences as a child,” she says. “My work touches on the nuances of family, self-love, self-preservation, actualization and metamorphosis.”

Here, in one of the most successful works on view, she deconstructed two vintage portable hair dryers but left them connected with cords “to illustrate the connection and source of strength in my familial unit,” she says, portraying a mother, her twins and, unexpectedly, a placenta that, to her, symbolizes “a universal and spiritual source.”

She adds that, for her, the exhibition’s conceit “highlights the power in deconstructing what seems functional and creating something more durable and beautiful.”



‘Spirit Catcher and Lumen-less Lantern’ (Willie Cole’s works)

Through Feb. 2, 2024, at Express Newark, 54 Halsey St., Newark, New Jersey; expressnewark.org.

‘Perceptual Engineering’ (group show)

Through June 30 at Express Newark.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.










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