From baby blankets and baby bottles to souped-up tricycles and baseballs, the work included in Dave Cole: American Lullaby summons images of an idyllic American childhood—at first glance. Fiberglass Teddy Bear (2004), an enormous stuffed pink bear visible through the windows of List Art Building, appears like a charmingly silly commemoration of youthful innocence. What, after all, is more emblematic of uncorrupted childhood than a teddy bear? Likewise, Baby Blanket (2002), a white swaddling cloth encased in a glass vitrine, sits like a perfectly preserved relic. However, close inspection of either of these objects quickly reveals how monstrous they actually are. Both are knit from materials laden with tiny shards of glass, making them abhorrent to the touch and dangerous to the lungs: the bear from Owens Corning Fiberglas (typically used for home insulation) and the blanket from Fiberfrax (an industrial porcelain developed to replace asbestos). Throughout his practice, Dave Cole juxtaposes such hazardous materials with the nostalgia of childhood to elucidate tensions between the ideal and the real.
This exhibition brings together iconic sculptures such as the Fiberglass Teddy Bear and The Music Box (2012), a vintage steamroller that has been retrofitted to play the Star Spangled Banner, alongside smaller works such as Toy Soldier Flag (2006), an American flag made from melted plastic toy soldier; Three Generations (2013), which consists of three models of hand grenades fashioned as baby rattles; and Kevlar Romper (2008), a toddler’s outfit sewn from repurposed Gulf War Kevlar. While many of the objects exhibited here evoke images of play, they are also poignant reminders of how both the military and infrastructure building influence the construction of national identity in the United States. Cole repeatedly returns to the signs and symbols of American military and economic power—from guns and flags to icons of industrialism—using various loaded materials to critically reconstruct their meanings. His work is at once aggressive, patriotic, incisive, and nostalgic. Drawing on the old adage that it takes a village to raise a child, his sculptures suggest we are all complicit in the construction of the symbolic meaning of our national icons.