Immediately following the election of Barack Obama, many news pundits talked of a new day in race relations. Pollsters on the subject cited a belief in progress, albeit with the caveat that some presumably aberrational data suggested a lingering black/white schism. Enter William Pope.L, the self-described “Friendliest Black Artist in America.” Since the late 1970s, Pope.L (b. 1955) has interrogated race, gender, class and identity, most famously through a series of “Crawl” performances that found him face down in various locations and attire, propelling himself on his elbows and knees. In his recent exhibition, “landscape + object + animal,” Pope.L presented video documentation, drawings, paintings, sculpture and writing. The breadth of mediums and density of display lent the exhibition an immersive, workspacelike quality, which the artist tied together with a program of scheduled performances invoking the first African-American president.
In the tightly scripted Cusp (2010), a succession of male art students recruited from a local MFA program entered the gallery (roughly one every hour, on Saturday afternoons only) and sat on a rudimentary bench. After retrieving a pair of extra-large pajamas from a nearby hook and pulling them over his clothing, the performer donned a Barack Obama costume head that exaggerates the President’s 100-watt smile. With the assistance of a gallery employee, the performer walked along the perimeter of a stepped platform, constructed of 2-by-4s framing a mound of dirt atop rows of bagged seeding soil, and climbed to its highest point. Extending an open hand, he accepted a coffee cup filled with a viridian green liquid, holding it not by the handle but the base.
For 75 minutes, the performer attempted to remain frozen, balancing the heavy cup. Inevitably, arms grew tired and palms wobbled, causing the green fluid to drip from vessel to hand to soil below. Some may have seen in Cusp a lampoon of Martin Luther King’s exalted mountaintop, with a clownlike Obama gazing out upon the so-called Promised Land. Given the current recession, others may have perceived the President clutching a measly cup of liquid soil nutrients, which he haplessly dripped upon the nation’s lifeless economic landscape. The artist would probably find such interpretations too simple and narrow. As evident also in the beguiling Snow Crawl (1992-2001), Pope.L’s lexicon of distortion and absurdity is intentionally unfixed. Gazing down a mirror-lined chute whose perimeter dimensions match those of an enclosed monitor at its end, the viewer sees a kaleidoscopically refracted video of the artist in his signature capeless Superman suit, struggling to crawl through a pristine field of untracked snow. With the distant sounds of children playing, a dog barking, and the rise and fall of the winter wind, the video conjures a cold, gray reverie in which a defeated black superhero has fallen from the sky into an empty suburban lot. While this tale may be literally down-to-earth, it is far from pedestrian, much less precisely coded. To paraphrase Pope.L, his
art seeks instead to rub myths together, in the hopes of making fire.
Photo: William Pope.L: Cusp, 2010, performance with mask, lumber, soil, pajamas and mixed mediums;
at Mitchell-Innes & Nash.