One of the most innovative artists of his generation, Willie Cole isrenowned for works of art assembled from a single type of discarded, mass-produced object such as steam irons, hair dryers, bicycle parts, and, perhaps most notably, women's high heel shoes. He employs these objects' visible evidence of use, as well as the invisible energy transferred from their users, combining and arranging them until the meaning of the new whole transcends that of the parts. Cole describes himself as a "perceptual engineer" - in his sculptures both the components of the work and the work as a whole compose a dynamic visual counterpoint of old and new, past and present, personal and univsersal. Similarly, his sculptures often contain elements of play and humor that resonate against such serious themes as consumer waste, deterioration of the natural environment, slavery in America, and African and Asian religious beliefs. The titles Cole selects for his artworks are also integral to the experience of them and provide clues for mining their content.
The title of this exhibition, E Pluribus Unum, translates from Latin as "out of many, one," and refers to Cole's process for creating his work. Shown in this exhibition are major new sculptures which Cole has made from the empty, recycled water bottles that are so ubiquitous in contemporary society. He was drawn to the bottles' malleability as well as their translucency and light-reflecting properties. Easy access to huge quantities of these bottles has allowed Cole to create the larger scale work.
The idea for the exhibition's signature work, E Pluribus Unum, came from a dream Cole had about a golden Buddha, which he interpreted as achieving a higher enlightenment. Cole practiced Buddhism for many years and continues to live by the Buddhist principle of oneness - the belief that all things are connected - implied in the name of this sculpture. Each of the bottles hang upside-down suspended with plastic filament, and together they form an inverted pyramid shape. Inside each bottle is the image of a gold Buddha statue printed on clear plastic film. The hundreds of bottles, each reflecting light from both the clear plastic ridges and the gold images inside, endow the sculpture with a shimmering, spiritual quality. This effect is enhanced when random air currents make the entire piece sway or individual bottles float away before gently settling ack into the whole.
Another major work, H2O, is a fully-sized automobile made from 3,000 clear plastic water bottles that Cole created in his garage, an irony fully appreciated by the artist. In this piece it is especially apparent that the bottle artworks require careful planning - calculating the number of bottles required for each, determining the method for holding them together, finding appropriate materials to support the shapes, and so on. The name of the work refers to the fact that drinkable water has been turned into a consumer item, purchased in plastic bottles that are, along with the gasoline used for fueling cars, a product of the oil refining process. H2O is a reminder of the over-reliance on cars, fossil fuels and single-use packaging in our consumer society, as well as their consequences - water and air pollution. This complex work also speaks to American's love of their cars, and it is both captivating and delightful to be presented with one made of such improbably materials.