Willie Cole Art Show Opens at Country Music Hall of Fame | Visual Art

At the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, a sculpture made from women’s shoes by Willie Cole is featured prominently in the ongoing Afrofuturist installation Before Yesterday We Could Fly. The sculpture is inside a bookshelf vitrine, flanked by an African nkisi figure from the 19th century and a colorful print that William Henry Johnson made in 1941. The sculpture’s placement is sound — Cole is, in many ways, an heir to both African and African American art history, and his iconic sculptural works are a postmodern amalgam of Black imagery. But although his work borrows from those traditions, Cole is a singular artist with his own distinctive point of view.

In Lyrical Reconstructions, which opens March 28 at Haley Gallery inside the Country Music Hall of Fame, the New Jersey-based artist turns that point of view onto Nashville. It’s an expansive exhibition with a variety of mediums — assemblage, works on paper, bronze sculpture — but a connecting thread could be the work’s relationship to music. Lyrical Reconstructions will contain several of the artist’s signature shoe-mask sculptures, but there will also be works made from musical instruments — guitars, saxophones, even a piano. Still, Cole is quick to dismiss any concrete symbolism.

“It’s not about the instruments,” he tells the Scene via phone from Hatch Show Print, the legendary print shop that houses Haley Gallery. “It’s about the availability of a single object in multiples. If I had 50 Volkswagens, I’d be excited to make art out of that. It’s whatever I have in abundance — I don’t really choose the objects.”


“Goldylicks,” Willie Cole

It’s fitting that so many of Cole’s works have musical references, and that association will be even more clear in the context of the storied Country Music Hall of Fame — not to mention Hatch Show Print, which has its own history of bridging the art-music gap. Cole himself is a musician, though he rarely plays.

“I’ve been a bedroom strummer,” he says. “I played for my daughters every night when they were little girls. For 14 years, every night at 8:30 I was in their rooms playing songs.”

The various sculptures made from Yamaha guitars are likely to draw attention from country music fans and art history lovers. “Guitar Head,” which is so new it hadn’t even been completed until just before installation began, is exactly what it sounds like — a shiny wooden head made from disassembled acoustic guitar bodies that looks a little like a mask from Cameroon. A 3-foot-tall bronze figure titled “The Worrier” has a similar aesthetic, but is cast from one of Cole’s shoe sculptures. 

“That’s been my main shtick for the past few years,” he says, humbly referencing the powerful post-Dadaist, post-Surrealism assemblages that are his calling card. He was even asked by Japanese fashion designer Rei Kawakubo to create headgear based on them for a 2021 Comme des Garçons runway show. That kind of cross-disciplinary collaboration is one of the reasons Cole’s reputation is growing — his influence spans the art world, the fashion world, and with Lyrical Reconstructions, the world of country music. 


“The Worrier,” Willie Cole

But the intersection of Willie Cole and music goes back much further. The exhibition features a handful of ink-on-paper works that illustrate his favorite country and blues songs. The exhibition will also feature a print by Cole made at Hatch Show Print. It’s based on a painting Cole made in 1973 of a bird playing a guitar, and he had thought it might be his first album cover. “But I never made an album,” Cole explains, saying the painting has been in his studio for the past five decades. The painting is the basis for his print at Hatch, and speaks to a vision Cole had for himself at a young age, and is just now approaching again.

“I had a goal to start playing publicly once I reached a certain age,” he says, “but when that age came, we were in a pandemic. The place I had planned to play — a cafe in my town — closed down. So that whole idea was put on hold, until now.” Cole’s work is in the collection of every major art museum in the country, and yet his time in Nashville is still special, and for entirely Nashville reasons. He’ll also perform two original songs at Thursday’s reception.

“It’s a real breaking-out-of-your-shell moment,” he says, before realizing that the perfect word is right in front of him, on the print shop’s door. “A hatch!” 

“It’s something I want to do more of, but this will be the first time I’ve done it.”

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