WORCESTER -- ''Afterburn," Willie Cole's one-man show of recent work at the Worcester Art Museum, is smart, often sharply witty, and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny, but the dense layers of meaning within it can get in the art's way. The show swims in symbols of African and African-American culture, but much of it is doing the backstroke.
Cole's art would have been hot 12 or 15 years ago, when many nonwhite, female, and gay artists were passionately using their work to express and find power in the parts of their identities that had long been oppressed. Today, invoking African masks and nail-embedded, porcupine-like Yoruba fetish objects seems tired indeed. Artists such as Ellen Gallagher, Fred Wilson, and Kerry James Marshall continue to examine race in provocative ways, but the emphasis is on the chafing points where races meet, conflict, and meld.
Cole's work in this show, which originated at the University of Wyoming Art Museum, is more about the past than the present, and so reliant on symbols that it drowns in them. It does, though, raise one existential question that will never go away: ''Why did the chicken cross the road?"
''To get to the other side," Cole's large-scale installation of an answer, is a galvanized-steel chessboard almost 16 feet square, covered with lawn jockeys clad in red and black. Such figures make many cringe in their evocation of slavery and racism. Cole uses the lawn jockey as a contemporary stand-in for the Yoruba god Elegba, associated with games and the colors red and black.
The piece evokes game theory, Yoruba magic, and the struggle of crossing over to freedom -- in this world or the next. Many of the game pieces are adorned with African symbols: The rooks wear pouches, the knights have armor made of nails, the kings and queens wear bangles and colorful skirts made from silk ties. Cole's ideas and aspirations for this piece are great, but his African imagery is so familiar that it fails to stir the sense of awe and mystery needed to transport viewers -- to get them to the other side.
Cole has long focused on the steam iron as an icon. He builds large ones out of bamboo or wood; they recall the hulls of boats, and perhaps the Middle Passage, and also domestic servitude. The shape of their bases echoes that of certain African masks.
Cole also uses irons to scald canvas or plywood, making black marks and patterns. ''Commemorative Scorch" is so dense with burns it's hard to read, but it is rife with historic meaning. It echoes patterns in quilts used as signs pointing the way along the Underground Railroad and forms associated with 17th-century Benin brass plaques, noting Benin's link to the slave trade. The layers of meaning in the scorch pieces, which lack exciting visual forms, seem onerously pedantic. The oversize irons, at least, have a fun, Claes Oldenburg-style immensity.
When Cole cleverly ropes in Pop Art or Dada riffs alongside the ethnic references, his work starts to light up. A brilliant series of antelope heads crafted from bicycle parts deftly ties together many strands: a Mali headdress known as tji wara, or ''the beast that works"; Duchamp's first readymade, a bicycle wheel; and the bike itself, emblematic of industry and ready transport. Here, the density of meaning doesn't weigh down the works because they have their own formal lightness. Pieces such as ''Vetta Pinnacle tji wara (mother and child)" sport sleek lines and bold gestures: Two saddles evoke antelopes' heads; handlebars regally describe ears or antlers.
The comically reconfigured sinks ''Abundance" and ''Desire" are shaped -- with their drains, spigots, and sensuous porcelain curves -- into a goddess and god of fertility. Made during a residency at the Kohler plumbing products factory, these tweak Duchamp's readymade urinal. These pieces and the tji wara work so well because their beauty and wit make their cultural references all the more potent.
Only one piece in ''Afterburn" really speaks to the present. ''Malcolm's Chickens III" is a large-scale hen crafted from Styrofoam and feathered with 8,000 matches. Her toes are made from firecrackers. The title refers to Malcolm X's remark, after John F. Kennedy's assassination, that ''the chickens have come home to roost." After 9/11, Cole reportedly recalled that chilling sentiment and was inspired to create a piece that embodied its threat. This sculpture travels to exhibitions cross-country on interstate highways. It sits in museums. It's an incendiary device, disguised as art.