You’d better add Kevin Cole’s neckties to your gift list.
That’s Kevin Cole, not clothing designer Kenneth. If you’re looking for cliché presents, head to your nearest department store. If you and your favorite recipients are looking for a memorable exhibit, head to the Weston Art Gallery for Straight from the Soul, a 25-year retrospective by the Atlanta artist.
The necktie is Cole’s signature, appearing in each of the 26 works shown. But the repetitiveness never becomes tiresome, thanks to Cole’s varied colors, patterns, materials and themes. His appeal crosses racial and generational lines; inspirations include his grandfather’s stories, music, 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. The artist’s statement begins with a Jasper Johns quote: “Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it. Do something else to it.” Cole’s early socio-cultural commentaries (influenced by conversations with his middle-school students) are literal, realistic representations on flat canvases. Since the mid-1990s, his works have evolved into abstract, 3-D expressions using bendable wood, tar paper, aluminum, copper and bronze.
Jazzy tangles of ties leap and loop like a music score in Cole’s Fragments of Frozen Sound series, which was inspired by Katrina’s hit on New Orleans. Ties hang long to form Jacob’s ladder in his Do Lord Remember Me collection. That series was begun after the death of mentor Tarrence Corbin in 2009. Corbin taught Cole at the University of Arkansas in Cole’s hometown of Pine Bluff before joining the University of Cincinnati’s DAAP in the 1980s. A separate piece, “3 a.m. Sunrise,” is subtitled “Wings for T.C.”
The choice of the tie icon originates from a civil-rights lesson from Cole’s grandfather.
When the artist turned 18, he told his granddad that he didn’t see the point in registering to vote. The older man directed him to stand under a specific tree, then come back and they’d talk some more. Cole, now 52, said he got a scary feeling under those branches. His grandpa then told him that years before, black men on their way to the polls had been lynched by their neckties in that tree.
The necktie, Cole writes, is “transformed from a symbol of powerlessness into a symbol of strength. It represents my belief in change, my sense of a more connected community and even my faith in a higher power.” One of the exhibit’s most powerful works is “The New Nooses.” Seven bronze ties are fashioned into the chilling shape. One is a handcuff. Five other loops hold symbols of golf, baseball, football, basketball and soccer — representing the allure of pro-sports money as a trap for many youngsters, black or white. The seventh tie represents a real way out. School images — a pencil, a book, a computer — decorate the tie, and the noose is empty.
Two other Weston shows complement Cole’s bright paintings and constructions. Pamela DeCoker of Oxford presents Paint Solo, forms created entirely from layers of acrylic paint. In the street-level gallery, totemic clay sculptures by Robert Pulley of Columbus, Ind., represent humans and natural objects that are Standing in Time’s Flow.
Straight from the Soul is the tie that binds the other exhibits. In Cole’s space, the strains of Blues, Gospel and Jazz started playing in my head. Upstairs, while viewing Pulley’s stoneware sculptures, I imagined the sounds of a babbling creek and the wind. Pulley’s works — some of them stacked 11 feet tall — beautifully mimic the strata, colors and textures of natural rock formations. Both artists establish a sense of place — be it Cole’s South or the woods and fields of Pulley’s Indiana, where plentiful limestone juts from the earth.
References to embedded human forms are implied and abstract — imagining them is natural as searching for animal shapes in the clouds. The viewer readily acknowledges the effort that went into Pulley’s works, yet there isn’t a feeling that he tried too hard to replicate the effects of lichens, glaciers, sun and rain on rock.
Cole’s vibrant colors are the most obvious link to DeCoker’s art. There’s also the notion of transformation of an everyday object. In DeCoker’s case, she uses paint as a sculptural medium, rather than as a material applied to sculpture. After creating a casting or impression of something as mundane as a plastic condiment cup or a sheet of diamond plate steel, she applies layers of paint until she has an acrylic skin thick enough to peel off and display under glass. The exhibit is minimalist and fun.
How did these three artists know just want we wanted this holiday season?
STRAIGHT FROM THE SOUL continues through Feb. 17 at Weston Art Gallery (westonartgallery.com) in downtown’s Aronoff Center. Gallery talks take place 7 p.m. Jan. 10 by Pulley and 7 p.m. Jan 16 by DeCoker.