Sanctity of Shoes: Willie Cole at Alexander and Bonin

If the shoe fits, Willie Cole will turn it into a sculpture. The exhibition at Alexander and Bonin Gallery in Chelsea inverts the question commonly posed about fashion’s status as art, and instead asks about art’s investment in fashion. Pieces like “MBF II” and “Zebratown Mask 2” utilize stainless steel wire and the more unconventional materials of high-heeled shoes to fashion beautiful pieces that strike a profound resemblance to African masks and the ceremonial sanctity those masks carry with them.

The exhibition prompts interesting questions; following Surrealist tendencies, Cole’s sculptures jolt their viewer into re-conceptualizing ordinary objects in new ways, by theorizing their uses, values, or purposes in a radically different manner. Shoes function uniquely, in that their essential and reduced value as a tool for walking is often times overlooked or deemphasized when they are thought of as a work of high fashion. In our everyday sense of understanding them, shoes are both tools and occasional objects of admiration. The second understanding dominates the first; if one is focused on the beauty or conversely, the strangeness, of a design, one is not simultaneously thinking about its function as a means to an end or as a necessity, but rather as an object in itself. Cole’s sculptures don’t hide or distort their materials; the viewer sees the sculpture as both an amalgamation of ordinary shoes used for walking and as an object pieced together for admiration. Where there usually exists only one of the two ways of seeing, Cole allows for both to be seen simultaneously.

“The Sole Sitter” occupies the lower level of the exhibition. Cast in bronze, the large sculpture isn’t itself composed of high heels as the smaller sculptures on the second level are, but is instead made to appear as if it were. Stilettos become shins and concurrently forearms; each part of the shoe is anthropomorphized and the result is a contemplative figure whose soul is read through soles. Cole’s work is expressive of a deep interest in the Yoruba religion originating in Southwestern Nigeria, Benin, and Togo (with a particular focus on the Orisa, the deities both representing and governing specific natural forces).[1] “The Sole Sitter” or ‘worrier,’ waits for the arrival of one such deity.

Cole’s shoe sculpture “Lizzy” stands out from the others for its underside; the heels’ rubber bottoms take center stage and the fleshy aspect resituates the viewer back into a more contemplative state—not unlike that inspired by the “Sole Sitter”—in questioning the line between practical object and art object. Unlike the more synthesizing aesthetic of “Zebratown Mask 2,” “Lizzy” makes the ‘object’ of shoe feel more visible by displaying its less attractive angles.

The viewer oscillates between an understanding of the works as shoes being on the wall and objects turned into art. Both are useful in leading us to understand the middle ground, in figuring out the process of how and when the first becomes the second. Willie Cole’s exhibition is an invitation to rethink this process, to tap our heels on the ground in self-reflection as we contemplate the movement of our own awareness and perspectival shifting.

Willie Cole’s exhibition “If wishes were horses…” is on view through November 16th, at Alexander and Bonin at 132 10th Ave.

– Amie Zimmer
Photos by Joerg Lohse. Images courtesy of Alexander and Bonin Gallery.

[1] Press handout, Alexander and Bonin Gallery



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