Three Women
On learning from Joan Mitchell and Joyce Pensato

Casa Museo Mario Praz

Interview with Michael Mahalchick

Passages column on Joyce Pensato

Pope L. 2004

In memory of Pope L. here is a review I had the honor to write in 2004:

If, as Thelma Golden observed in a discussion with the artist, black men are the most powerless people in America, impotence is a position that William Pope.L enfolds in a magically potent embrace. An African American artist whose harrowing public performances have entailed crawling on his belly in streets all over the world, and having himself buried up to the neck in soil, Pope.L exudes the charisma of a seasoned actor as he beautifully articulates the myriad contradictions illuminated in his work. Pope.L has developed a disturbing persona for his performances that brings to mind a stereotypical homeless man ranting on the street. At the same time, he acts as an insidious prophet revealing uncomfortable truths through crazy poetry -- the logic of a senseless world.

eRacism, Pope.L’s two-venue traveling retrospective, was accompanied in its New York/New Jersey stop at Artists Space and Rutgers University’s Mason Gross Art Galleries by re-Funkt: prints and dvds, a solo exhibition at the Project. A program of two one-hour dvds, each containing video documentation of the 1990-2002 performances at the heart of Pope.L’s practice, could be seen in both New York and New Jersey, along with two succinct groups of drawings, digitized collages, wall paintings and installations that provided a rich material context for the work. Looming like a homemade lynching platform, for example, the disturbing set from Pope.L’s 2000 performance, Eating the Wall Street Journal, dominated the Artist Space show. A ten-foot high pyramid structure of four newspaper-covered legs supported a summit crowned with a white ceramic toilet. In the video, Pope.L can be seen, dressed in jockstrap, boots, and glasses, his body dusted with white powder. Climbing up to the toilet, he sits and reads the paper, now and then munching an interesting article seasoned with milk or ketchup, and spitting it out at the audience. Underneath, a pipe descended from the toilet’s bottom, with four bags of flour attached to it, like weights. By isolating such materials as flour, paper, and milk, whiteness -- the given invisible condition -- becomes a palpable, even edible, substance. Sitting on his elevated toilet/throne, a guillotine of whiteness and money, Pope.L symbolically regurgitates capitalism, acting aggressively on it rather than letting himself be consumed. A slowly dripping bottle of ketchup deposited patches of gore on the newspapers scattered below, a reminder of the cold-blooded activities recorded and inspired by the Wall Street Journal.

The comparatively minimal display at The Project consisted of three dvds and a few photos. Isolated from the gritty installations, the display seemed somewhat sanitized. A Negro Sleeps Beneath the Susquehanna, for example, was missing the moving words heard in the performance dvds on view at the retrospective:

“ ....I wish I could dream stuff like that guy, what’s his name, Martin Luther King....I wish I could love something that much but all I got is the crawfish and the minnows...I wish I could love something that much but I’m too black..... maybe I’ll sprinkle on the white stuff and then someone might bake me a cake with glass in it....a cake of mirror and water so that I may touch your face...”

Also lacking was the haunting conclusion, in which Pope.L crosses a river, invisible under the burden of a mended broken mirror that reflected the audience back at themselves. The bizarre dance that was seen, featuring the artist brandishing a table covered with flour that scattered in all directions, was nonetheless compelling.

Pope.L’s performances can be heartbreaking, but they are also suffused with wit. He brings his mordant sense of humor to the pervasive white fear of engulfing black masculinity in his riotous 1996 Harlem street performance, Member (a.k.a. “Schlong Journey”). At one point, Pope.L pulls a latex glove over his head and face, turning himself white. As he breathes out, the glove expands, its empty fingers straightening and wiggling at the top of his head. When he breathes in, the glove contracts over his face, and the fingers become flabby and relax. Finally, the camera withdraws, revealing a narrow white cardboard tube stretching from his crotch to a wheeled pedestal, culminating in a white stuffed animal. Straight-faced, wheeling this bizarre contraption down the street, Pope.L acts out a perfect metaphor for the burden of carrying a mythical phallus. His potentially suffocating attempt to become white distorts his features, and his threatening black member becomes a pale paper tube capped by a harmless toy, in need of a crutch to be mobile.

Featured in several of the videos on view, Pope.L’s signature crawl ordeals are particularly painful to watch. Purposely surrendering his upright stance, he drags his body across sidewalks and roads, dirty, exhausted and in danger of being trampled. The reactions of people passing by range from indifference to curiosity, concern and anger. When filmed by a white photographer, the performances can be especially troubling to African-Americans. “Why are you crawling behind the white man?” an enraged black pedestrian demands, “I wear a suit like that to work.” This is clearly a project that cuts to the spectator’s bone.

The installations on view at Rutgers included Map of the World , (2001), a pair of US maps connected by a carpet of black garbage bags. Partially covered with a grid of cooked hot dogs attached to a wooden backing with sheet rock screws, the maps were painted with mustard and ketchup. Emitting a pungent smell and resembling so many severed and grilled black penises, they comprised a mordant vision of an isolated country resting on the corpse of black masculinity. The edible materials that Pope.L often employs in his installations, including peanut butter, mayonnaise, pop tarts and pizza, suggest that it’s crazy to think about owning works of art when others can only afford to own the food they eat.

The symbolism of white/black and male/female that permeates our lives, beyond anyone’s actual gender or color, is Pope.L’s target. Performing in a pink skirt, speaking provocatively of Martin Luther King’s vagina, and reiterating that black equals lack, he communicates a discourse of race and masculinity that flows around openings as much as it does around protrusions. What makes his work unique is his wholehearted delight in complex contradictions, his willingness to make fun of categories and embrace them at the same time. How can blackness be so threatening, Pope.L asks, if it is the color of the space between the stars? And how can whiteness be so overpowering when it is sometimes as sweet as his cat, Mr. Milk? Pope.L’s concrete poetry, so compelling in his texts, comes to material and active life in his performances and installations.

eRacism, Part 1
Rutgers University, Mason Gross School of the Arts
January 5 - February 5, 2004
eRacism, Part 2
Artists Space
January 14 - February 21, 2004
re-Funkt: prints & dvds
The Project, New York
January 7 - February 8, 2004