William Pope.L is famous for (among other things) carrying a business card that identifies him as “The Friendliest Black Artist in America.” It’s a clever gag because it makes itself true, in a way, every time it draws people closer. The card must be especially useful when Pope.L does business with people who dread Black men or Black artists. But the gag here is always already the second trope Pope.L has thrown at us. Whatever his card says under his name, in approaching anybody named “Pope.L” we have first to confront funky punctuation and capitalization. Our initial problem is that extra initial — how does one say this name aloud? Without instruction, nobody gets off to the right start with Pope.L. As a word, his name fates us to bepuzzlement, uncertainty, and mispronunciation, sure signs that we are, or he is, from another world. The card is funny, but his tropes are not mere jokes, and we are left to ponder the deeper significances of even tiny black marks on a white page.
Pope.L has opened his first solo exhibition at — and, so, in a way, handed his business card to — the University of Chicago, where he recently commenced teaching for the Department of Visual Arts. The name of his show, Forlesen, like his last name, is a bit of wordplay which indicates a double consciousness: the title is the title of a 1974 science fiction short story by Gene Wolfe, and when you say it aloud, you make the sound of its German homophone, “vorlesen,” which means “to read aloud.” Coming at us as it does, from speculative literature, and from a misspelled word in another language, Forlesen is not an easy show, but it becomes powerfully legible when one registers that some of its difficulty resides in how we resist thinking about what is obvious, about what is right in front of us. Pope.L’s pun on the German “vorlesen” twists Freud’s aphorism, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar” into, “Sometimes it’s important to pay close attention to what’s right in front of you, on the surface, because that is complicated enough.” The German “vorlesen” calls to mind how much of our imaginative lives once took place during and just after we were read to, aloud, back when writing was squiggly bodies on pages and we did not know that black marks could point to meaning(s) far from our embodied sensory experiences.
I write poems. So I feel Pope.L’s career-long investment in wordplay like a kinship. Profound endemic prejudice draws from Pope.L a series called eRacism. Life for Black men in late nineties America is a drag? Pope.L’s five-year crawl from the Statue of Liberty to the Bronx, titled The Great White Way, is one punning response. (You can watch Pope.L scrape his body down a street near Tompkins Square Park on Vimeo.) The art world — more verbal, perhaps, than it has ever been — sat up and took notice when Pope.L hit the sidewalk with Thunderbird Immolation, his wicked appropriation of the forms used by Vietnamese Buddhist monks who had, in the seventies, protested our colonial war by burning themselves to death on street corners. A Thunderbird is no Phoenix, and Pope.L is nobody’s fool, thus his canny choice to douse his body in wine, which is no fuel. Even as he’s unpretentiously pretended to burn it, Pope.L has said, “The black body is a lack worth having.” Do you need further proof of his sensitivity to both the letter and the spirit of the word? Look to that brief text. The body of the word “black” fails to lack “lack,” and as it does so, it prefaces “lack” with a homophonic form of “be.” No double negative is lost on Pope.L. One almost hears him saying that no double negative, like W.E. B. DuBois’s “double consciousness,” is not worth having.
So I do not denigrate the work when I say that Forlesen draws power from a few egregiously bad puns. (Humor is not always “friendly.”) The body of Forlesen insists that viewers eventually realize its bawdy humor, else they take nothing from it at all. At first viewers wander along and between two vertical wall-like structures which stand in the southern half of the gallery, and on which are posted many of Pope.L’s page-sized skin set drawings. At the gallery threshold the viewer faces a wall that was once fully-covered with a “skin” made of joint compound and ketchup. (If the show had a “Foreword” it would be this fore-skin.)
Forlesen (wood, plywood, joint compound, ketchup, nails), William Pope.L, 2013, installation view. Photograph courtesy Renaissance Society.
By showtime that skin had already begun to flake, psoriatically, to the floor, as if to instruct us to read Forlesen for its fragile surfaces. The color and condition of our skin, after all, is precisely that sort of superficial information that too often makes all the difference by indicating to others, in the absence of more detailed information, whether or not they should treat us they way they treat people whose skin is like their own. The first wall of Forlesen is wounded like a human body, but our interest is in its surface covering, not the boring plywood and two-by-four structure underneath. Doctors know that under our skins humans differ from each other in minute and various ways. With all the drapery and special extra-dermal layers adhering to its surface, even a surgeon can forget the color of the body they’re cutting into — her objectivity in this way is her business card. But for the ordinary reader of bodies, so focused on, for so long trained to make surface distinctions, a human interior is stubbornly illegible for difference. Our tools for interpretation are surface-specific, even if we say we are after deep meanings. The drawings posted on the inner side of this first wall and both sides of the second wall are accompanied by some fragments of story text, yet Pope.L gives us frankly little to read, and nothing to read aloud. But in the space of Forlesen, if a viewer has nothing much to interpret, that lack is a lack worth having.
That’s because many of Pope.L’s skin set drawings depict the magnified empty spaces between the magnified letters of some magnified text, as below. In the West, historically, the spaces between letters and between lines of handwriting or printed text have been “whitish” (literature has only been literally black on white since bleach was introduced to paper production.)
Skin set drawing, the space between the letters (ballpoint, coffee, and correction fluid on white paper, 9 x 11.5 inches), William Pope.L, 2013. Photograph courtesy Renaissance Society.
This whiteness is most of what is materially present when we read, but reading we do not attend to it; a reader busily ignores the white space the better to decode the marks made upon it, just like a person might be too busy to attend to the racialized whiteness of American society. Likewise the “spaces” that back what we read and how we read — universities, newspapers, libraries — have typically been ethnically and racially white spaces. (This virtual page is white space in the same way.) Whether these are “Friendly” images or not, Pope.L’s skin set drawings emphasize the ways such white spaces shape and sometimes frustrate reading. In each drawing he zooms in, as if there is something of value to be gained by examining what has so often been passed over. His skin set drawings are stained brown by his caffeinated attention (stained by coffee), blurred by desire (pocked with semen-like globs), and bear punning scars of Wite-out wielded to “correct” for errant or inappropriate issuings of black ink. The friable ketchup-tinted “skin” of the first wall fell away according to his plan, allowing us to see that there is nothing under it for connoisseurs of surface. In the skin set drawings Pope.L zooms in so that we see only parts of letters that promise wholes. If Forlesen suggests that our usual, speedy, silent ways of reading might yet be useful to us, Pope.L keeps whole letters just off-page, just out of reach.
Viewers who run the gauntlet of skin set drawings will find themselves near the entrance to the base of a large black and wood-toned structure roughly but recognizably, from several points of view, in the shape of a big dick. (Really this miniature Quonset hut-cum-spaceship is only a quarter-dick, something short of a Mulatto-dick, something larger than an octaroon-dick.) A dark curtain invites viewers to seek, in its interior spaces, the satisfactions of reading Pope.L has, so far, deferred. As I walked in I recalled the early Woody Allen film, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But were Afraid to Ask, with its short sequence involving human actors costumed as spermatozoa who crammed into the long narrow channel of a well-lit urethra, preparing to be ejaculated.
Forlesen, William Pope.L, 2013, installation view. Photograph courtesy Renaissance Society.
Pope.L nods to and takes the piss out of Allen’s contribution to the history of bodily humor. In his version, the inside of the penis is a theatre’s metaphoric blackness. Visibility is so drastically reduced that the word “viewer” hardly applies; once inside, we are fellow travelers in unknown territory (albeit territory slightly more familiar to contemporary art aficionados used to navigating dark video installations.) Lured by the flicker of video monitors, dutifully we work our ways forward, to see what’s playing. Alas, three small monitors display illegible low-budget pornography: Pope.L seems to have obtained the only three copies of eMission Impossible, and they run without interruption and without money shot. In Allen’s movie, an orgasm is achieved, the human actors in their sperm suits are ejaculated, and a race to fertilize an egg begins. But nothing comes of our entry into the cramped spaces of Pope.L’s giant penis. Nothing comes of it — nothing, that is, except that everybody inside this dick is black for a short time being. Pope.L cannot completely remove color — he wouldn’t want to — but when color is this radically reduced, he shows us, we all have a very hard time reading. When, by design, viewers back out of Pope.L’s penis the way they came — that is, not having come — our emergence into the gallery is the anti-anti-climax of the show.
The charters of the first universities in the West were written in dark ink on white space — they were designed, at their inceptions, to be “white” spaces. Thus, the progressive political history of the University of Chicago aside, it could be that Pope.L’s placement, or shall we say, “quartering,” of this big dark penis in the white space of the Renaissance Society’s gallery a masterstroke of Site-Specific installation. Has Pope.L found, in the University of Chicago, the perfect orifice into which to put this big dark thing? Isn’t that a friendly way to think about Forlesen?
A critic asks, in a brief note on Forlesen, “Is Chicago Ready for William Pope.L?” The question is belated. Forlesen says out loud that William Pope.L is in Chicago, ready or not. Come see it, even if you have to crawl.
Originally posted at Berfrois
Daniel Bosch’s poems and translations have been published in journals such as Poetry, Slate, The Times Literary Supplement, Agni, The Beloit Poetry Journal, The New Republic and The Paris Review. He was Poetry Editor at Harvard Review for issues 19 and 20. In 1998 he was awarded the Boston Review Poetry Prize for a set of poems riffing on films starring Tom Hanks, and his first collection of poems, Crucible, was published by Other Press in 2002. Recent essay-reviews by Daniel can be read at Artsfuse, Contemporary Poetry Review, The Critical Flame, The Rumpus and The Fortnightly Review. He teaches at Emory University, Altanta.