Essay by Lilly Wei

Carol Cole has been involved with breasts and bubbles in one way or another since 1976, when she made a series of small, black and white and colored pencil drawings that she called The Bubble Blower. They depicted 36 variations of a breast with the nipple inverted because, she says, she needed self-sustenance. Hanging above her work station in her studio is a reproduction of Chardin’s celebrated Soap Bubbles, a painting that depicts a youth leaning out a window, a long straw between his lips. A single, perfectly formed transparent bubble is delicately suspended at its tip, attesting to his skill. Formerly called The Bubble Blower, it made a deep impression on Cole and in homage, she appropriated the title. Other important influences at the time were Judy Chicago, Lynda Benglis, Elizabeth Murray, and Eleanor Antin, all talented women whose example gave Cole confidence in her own vision of what art should be, one that was radical 30 years ago, especially in the South where Cole lived. She says she was never interested in painting conventional still lifes and landscapes.

 

From the Chardin painting, Cole had found her subject, a high, aspiring mound with an indentation that resembles a mouth, the nurturing element retracted, almost always spouting bubbles. The heroine/anti-heroine in all her works from then on, the Breast became Cole’s alter ego-with a later invention, the Anti-Nothingness Image-although she herself is not a breast but a whole woman, she says. It is, however, a barometer of her fears, pains and pleasures. Due to personal circumstances, she waited almost 20 years to further develop her breast works, but in 1995, Cole returned to her motif in a series of drawings, paintings and wall pieces called The Resurrection of the Bubble Blower. She used her original images as her source, experimenting with different scales and materials. It was in 1998, however, that she made her breakthrough with her mixed media breast sculptures that have taken on a life of their own. Cole’s fervid, feminist imagination has run riot, the images irreverent, ironic and often gorgeous. These latter breasts have both introverted and extroverted nipples in which the latter signals the nurturing of others-which Cole can do now. While scale varies, the majority are domesticated, the size of a large, round mixing bowl, say, turned upside down. There is the coquettish Crochet Breast, 1998, a mounded shape snugly draped in white crochet counterbalanced by Tuf (for Nancy Grossman), 2004, a menacing black leather and zippered Breast, there is Fruit of the Loom, 1998, studded with miniature apples, bananas and pears and there is Mother of Pearl, 1998, encrusted with lustrous, milky pearls. There is the sparklingTwinkle, Twinkle Little Star, 1999, which, when the nipple is pressed, plays the popular nursery song, and Somewhere over the Rainbow, 1999, gowned in iridescent satin, another music box. For nature, there is the brown-pebbled Rock of Ages, 2000, which resembles a mountain or a stone tumulus and the intensely, artificial green The Grass is Greener, 2000, which looks like a divot and there is Breastscape, 2003, which pictures a lovely panoramic landscape a la Cole. Take your pick, Cole’s fearlessly autobiographical project goes on and on-with intimations of the absurd, the surreal and the vulnerable mingled with post-feminist critique which is right at home with current, young metropolitan art.

Lilly Wei
Lilly Wei is a New York-based independent curator, essayist and critic who writes for several publications in the United States and abroad. A frequent contributor to Art in America , she is also a contributing editor at ARTnews and Art Asia Pacific.