William Pope.L’s powerful exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Geffen Contemporary subtly replaces passive viewing with multisensory experience. The show teems with possibilities for heightened sensation—smell, touch, vision and hearing—and draws on Pope.L’s decades of performance and video work to evoke the kinds of physical and psychical shifts a performer might experience. At the center of this selection of nine mixed-medium pieces dating from 1992 to the present is Trinket (2008/2015), a 16-by-45-foot American flag blown by four large industrial fans of the type used to simulate tornadoes on movie sets.
This is the second presentation of Trinket; it was first shown in 2008 at the Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City, where the massive fans blew 24/7 for one week. Once again, their whir permeates a cavernous space while slowly fraying the extra-long flag (with one added star, presumably for the excluded), so that the red and white stripes begin to rip apart and wave like tattered ribbons or broken limbs. Standing near the flapping fabric, in the chaotic rush of air, one seems to teeter between anxiety and calm, a balancing act repeated throughout the show.
Works depicting the flag by artists from Jasper Johns to, more recently, David Hammons and Dread Scott tend to vacillate between representation and critique of the icon. Similarly, Pope.L’s flag is, on the one hand, a safe and stable symbol of the U.S.—carefully taken down, folded and stored away each evening—but, on the other, is oversize, misshapen and in flux. In a country that tends to reserve flag-waving for self-styled patriots (i.e., conservatives), this altered banner raises an array of unanswered questions about the state of our democracy and who, exactly, the flag represents. No doubt, recent news from Ferguson, New York, Los Angeles, North Charleston and Baltimore will color most viewers’ experience of Trinket. But Pope.L does not leave matters at that. The exhibition functions as a layered whole, accruing meaning over the course of one’s visit, with each new area prompting additional considerations of freedom and nationalism, language and race, time and decay. The works ask not only what it means to be an American today, but also, more broadly, what it means to be human—to breathe and act, to live and die.
A new installation, Migrant (2015), structured as a two-tier, black-painted platform, winds around the outer perimeter of the flag area like low, forlorn scaffolding. It functions as the site for an eerie performance in which two blindfolded people, wearing long white wigs and puffy coats, variously climb, crawl, hang, slither, mumble and moan on the platform, their limbs extending over, around and through the latticework. Juxtaposed with the tattered Stars and Stripes, Migrant’s anonymous figures, lacking conventional markers of identity, race, gender and culture, question what it means to define anyone as “other.”
This bid for inclusiveness is echoed in the strange and striking Polis or the Garden or Human Nature in Action (1998/2015), an installation of hundreds of onions, most half-dipped in red or blue paint but some in green or black, laid in rows on long tables and left, for the duration of the show, to sprout and rot like specimens in a lab. A new work, Circa (2015), conjoins Dada’s critique of nationalist power via nonsensical wordplay with the muscular energy of Abstract Expressionism, all in a palette of sticky-sweet pinks and whites. The work consists of two dozen 27-by-18-inch, thickly impastoed paintings, each featuring two scrawled terms: “fuschia” plus a word randomly produced by a rap rhyme generator.
One of the most potent pieces in the exhibition is also the smallest and least visible. Blind (2015) comprises a book-size black rectangle set in the wall of a large white room. Curious viewers who step in close will encounter a recess stretching back into the wall and emitting a stream of air that faintly recalls the blast of the Trinket fans. The work’s blackness is shockingly peaceful and vaguely surreal. Like the Hindu deity Shiva or a cosmic black hole, it suggests an all-encompassing darkness that paradoxically contains not only death and annihilation but also the seeds of creativity, new beginnings and progress.
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.