“Straight from the Soul”
~ Christopher Hoeting
“Straight from the Soul,” Kevin Cole’s exhibition at the Alice F. and Harris K. Weston Gallery, opened to a warm reception amid Cincinnati’s winter season. Cole is no stranger to Cincinnati, as indicated by the presence of numerous friendly faces. I would be remiss if I did not mention the attendance of supporter and mentor Frank Herrmann, a faculty member at the University of Cincinnati’s College of DAAP who, along with many collectors and friends, is a strong supporter of Cole’s work. Over the years, Cole has maintained many strong relationships; at his artist talk, Cole spoke of the late Terrance Corbin as a mentor and friend with whom “he had weekly conversations with for decades.”
The Weston exhibit marks Cole’s first solo endeavor in the city and is one of two opportunities to see his work here this season. Along with “Straight from the Soul” at the Weston, Cole’s work will also appear at The Taft Museum from February 15 – April 28 in an exhibition entitled “African American Art since 1950: Perspectives from the David C. Driskell Center.” This exhibit will give Cole’s work context within a broad spectrum of contemporary African American artists in this prominent national collection.
I had my first experience with Kevin Cole’s artwork in 2003 as a graduate student and assistant at The Art Gallery at the University of Maryland. While working at the gallery, I had the pleasure of admitting several prominent contemporary artworks to The David C. Driskell Collection and I distinctly remember pulling back the plastic on Cole’s piece to discover Hand Writing on the Wall (1996) that was donated by Cole to a open call for the David C. Driskell Center. This same work will be hanging at The Taft Museum in February.
Looking back on my first impressions of Cole’s work as a curious student, I do recall (like many other Cole enthusiasts) immediately responding to its formal aspects. Handwriting on the Wall is a high relief artwork common to Cole’s works throughout the last two decades—the piece protrudes out of its crate with color and dimension, much like a strong jazz piece out of a cabinet speaker. The color Cole brings to his painted pieces and the rhythm of the three dimensional forms endlessly move the body and eye. Unsurprisingly, Cole himself commonly speaks of his work as heavily influenced by music, prominently “musical art forms born out of African American culture: such as Jazz music, R&B, Hip-Hop, Gospel, and Blues.”
“Straight from the Soul” is a traveling exhibition organized by Dr. Julie McGee, Curator of African American Art at the University of Delaware Art Museum, and celebrates twenty-five years of art making by Cole. The Weston Gallery is the seventh stop of the exhibition and offers an in-depth overview of Cole’s work over the past two and a half decades. The exhibition begins with a pair of paintings from the late eighties entitled Signs of the Times: Struggles of the Families and Signs of the Times: Choices of a Middle School Child. Opening the exhibition with these two paintings offers a foundation to begin to understand both Cole’s early work as a painter and his early ideas regarding social consciousness. Throughout the lower level Gallery at the Weston, Cole explores a combination of mixed media objects in low and high relief, paintings, and drawings that move within varies mediums such as wood, tar paper, painting, drawing, and later into casting in metal. Many of the works are object based and include strong physical paint handling with bold and colorful palettes.
In contrast to the mainly color infused exhibition, I was particularly drawn to a piece from 2006: The New Nooses. The subdued palette of the cast bronze series of seven neck ties in a row displayed upside down as nooses sent a cold chill within the midst of seemingly playful and colorful formal explorations in rhythm. The New Nooses highlights the motif of the necktie and the symbol that the tie represents and the piece carries significant weight in the exhibition. I later investigated Cole’s artist statement and uncovered a story revealed by Cole: “When I turned eighteen years old, my grandfather stressed the importance of voting by taking me to a tree where he was told that African-Americans were lynched by their neckties on their way to vote. The experience left a profound impression in my mind.”
I later discovered that Cole was inspired to make this series in a note, within which he writes, “The Series of works were inspired by the Jena Six, the name given to a group of six black teenagers charged with the beating of Justin Barker, a white student at Jena High School in Jena, Louisiana, United States, on December 4, 2006. Barker was injured, but was released from the emergency room the same day. He has since brought suit against members of the Jena Six, their parents, the school district, and others allegedly involved. A number of events took place in and around Jena in the months preceding the Barker assault, which have been linked to an alleged escalation of racial tensions. These events included the hanging of nooses from a tree in the high school courtyard, two violent confrontations between white and black youths, and the destruction by fire of the main building of Jena High School. The incidents were often linked in the extensive news coverage regarding the Jena Six.”
Once the motif was activated in my mind’s eye, it became difficult to not feel a little naive about my early assessments of the seemingly color-based compositions; this discovery left me wondering how I missed the brooding commentary of the necktie some years ago in my early twenties.
After viewing this work, I found myself spinning around in a three hundred and sixty degree circle to realize that Cole’s works are an investigation of the complex dialogue between beauty and the vicissitudes of human experience. His works engage in difficult issues, exist beyond simple surface investigations, and encompass many levels of depth. Cole is conscious of the choice to hide behind beauty. It is fitting that the necktie becomes the motif. It is a historical marker of struggle and identity that several other contemporary African American artists have explored as a symbol of formal dress and an investigation of identity. The tie also may imply the cooptation of identity into American life.
Jacob’s Ladder: Do Lord Remember Me 1 (2010) is the largest piece in the exhibition and perhaps the most sculptural. The artwork is wall bound but it protrudes outward with a large suspending multicolor plane with dozens of neckties draping downward and a ladder leading up through the middle of the composition. The work is truly the most beautiful in the exhibition. With neckties draped around the ladder that leads to the heavens, the piece works as both a hopeful symbol and a requiem for the long and complex American story surrounding race.
The investigation of the Jacob’s ladder has been a symbol many artists have used as an image over the years and it reminded me of a work by Martin Puryear I saw some years ago at the National Gallery in D.C., Ladder for Booker T. Washington (1996). In contrast to Puryear, Cole’s interpretation leads into a solid form, where the tie motif suspends under the surface within a repetition of vibrant color. The title, Jacobs Ladder: Do Lord Remember Me 1, suggests both a look inward toward Cole himself and the loss of those climbing the ladder (as represented in the curling neckties). Perhaps the plane is an arrival point atop Jacob’s ladder? I am left feeling both cynical and hopeful in response to Cole’s Jacob’s ladder, as Cole creates with the large plane both an apex for the ladder and a barrier. Cole’s plateau suggests an ending point—a hopeful gesture toward his version of the Jacob’s ladder story.
When viewing Kevin Cole’s exhibition “Straight from the Soul” at The Weston Gallery, it is quite important to start at the beginning. Layers created over twenty-five years within his work are hopeful and socially conscious; Cole’s work is itself as complicated as the issues he comments on.
I strongly suggest working your way to The Weston Art Gallery to see at this exhibition before it closes on February 17th and then following up with a visit to the Taft’s “African American Art since 1950: Perspectives from the David C. Driskell Center.” The exhibition will help to offer perspective on how Cole’s works have developed over the past few years and context into the larger African American Diaspora. You will find many insights while looking at his work among a myriad of other artists that tread within the same territories to discover that Cole’s voice is not only unique, but it also speaks of education, of discovery and of a multi-faceted approach to complex issues—an approach that might serve to fuel a dialogue within which Cincinnati desperately needs to engage.
While contemplating the issues that surround Cole’s exhibit at The Taft Museum, you may want to linger among the Robert S. Duncanson murals done in the mid-1800’s which are located in the entryway of this historic house and ponder the connections among these three important artistic experiences; celebrating an opportunity to create a dialogue raised between these two institutions that bridge and challenge our experience.
Christopher Hoeting is an visual artist, adjunct professor at the University of Dayton, and Art Director at The Emery, A Requiem Project.