Before the drip-dry era, the steam iron was a ubiquitous household tool. Now that wrinkles are fashionable, irons are not so common or essential.

Maybe that's why New Jersey artist Willie Cole has been able to see more than function in their humble shapes. To him irons and ironing boards are metaphors ripe with historical, religious and personal associations that beam out, with startling poignancy, from four new print-suites at Highpoint Center for Printmaking in south Minneapolis.

A suite of nine screen prints called "Complementary Soles" shows the artist in a playful mood. Executed in bold colors, each of the images features the "face" of a steam iron standing with point up. Bright complementary hues -- red on green, blue on orange -- make the faces seem to pop off the paper and accentuate the steam holes, which bristle with energy and emotion as if they are scowling, grinning or even waving little arms. Let the imagination roam and the "faces" may even look like plump bodies, bishop's miters, lanterns, church windows, shields or footprints.

One of the most impressive, and surprising, things about Cole's work is how deftly it triggers such associations without masking the original source material. Thanks to his skillful manipulation of scale and color, the "Soles" are always clearly irons even when they seem to be something else. That illusion continues in "The Virgins," larger iron-inspired prints in which subtle color shifts -- pink on rose, tangerine on amber -- lend the images an almost spiritual glow. The radiant patterns of the steam holes even subliminally recall the rays surrounding the Virgin Mary in traditional religious iconography.

Transformative history

Trained in media arts and graphic design, Cole, 57, has designed album covers and produced theater and opera sets as well as prints and sculpture. He is perhaps best known for assemblage sculptures composed of women's shoes, irons, plumbing fixtures and even hair dryers, which he imaginatively transforms into objects resembling masks, chairs, thrones and figurative African carvings.

The Minneapolis Institute of Arts showcases one of Cole's shoe-sculptures in its African galleries, where it fits right in among nail-studded fetish figures. Such visual puns have a long tradition in Western art, especially in the sculpture of Picasso, who famously turned a toy car into a baboon head, a bicycle seat into a cow skull and a wicker basket into a goat's body.

Cole recognized the visual potency of steam irons more than 30 years ago, when he first used them to make scorch marks on paper and canvas. Nodding to his African-American heritage, he employed the marks to echo the designs on traditional African shields and to suggest facial scarification patterns. In a well-known 1997 woodblock print, he transformed the silhouette of an ironing board into a diagram of a slave ship laden with human cargo and surrounded by iron patterns representing the shields of different African peoples sold into slavery.

Highpoint beauties

Working at Highpoint over the past 17 months, Cole again used ironing-board imagery in two series, "Five Beauties Rising" and "The Beauties." Both are based on metal ironing boards which he used as printing plates. Purchased at thrift stores and off the Web, the ironing boards were dismantled and then flattened so that they could be inked and run through Highpoint's printing presses. To flatten them, Highpoint's staff ran over the metal panels with cars and trucks, skateboarded on them, and beat them with hammers. The resulting nicks, gouges, stains, strap marks and bruises suggest the personal history of each "Beauty," battered but dignified figures that stand upright with old fashioned names printed below them: Bessie, Ida Mae, Matti Lee.

Twenty-two of these unlikely personages line the walls in a chapel-like Highpoint gallery, their familiar forms suggesting veiled women, swaddled infants, bodies trussed up for burial, tombstones, ancient stele and, of course, ceaseless domestic drudgery.

Having grown up in a largely female household, Cole here pays homage to the women he loves. He told the Highpoint staff that some of the names -- all female -- reference his ancestors and family, while others are traditionally associated with slaves or domestic help, including Mammy from "Gone With the Wind" and Calpurnia from "To Kill a Mockingbird."

They are remarkably compelling in their individuality: Clara Esther, one of those thin, ghostly figures who floats through life unscathed; sturdy Bertha Mae, so upright and unbowed, and plump Lucy with her broad bands and battered edges.

Cole's genius is in conveying the spiritual potential of the most ordinary domestic objects, finding beauty in the mundane, and honoring these otherwise forgotten individuals and their histories.

Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431