In light of the recent William Pope.L: Trinket exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, we take a look back at Pope.L’s Art After White People: Time, Trees, & Celluloid… at the Santa Monica Museum of Art.
On view at SMMoA from September 8 through December 23, 2007, Art After White People included a large-scale installation, The Grove; a set design and video, APHOV (A Personal History of Videography); and a set of digital collages in light boxes entitled The Semen Pictures. Created especially for SMMoA, these works constituted the first major West-Coast museum exhibition by Pope.L, who consistently works on the edge of the art world, often literally integrating his vision into the physical fabric of the social landscape. As the self-proclaimed “friendliest black artist in America,” Pope.L’s has continually challenged and confronted social inequity and the bogus construction of difference with dark humor and biting critique. Art After White People: Time, Trees, & Celluloid… was accompanied by an exhibition catalogue published by SMMoA, featuring an in-depth interview with the artist by exhibition curator Lisa Melandri, and essays by LAXART director Lauri Firstenberg, and environmental historian Wade Graham.
The Grove, APHOV, and The Semen Pictures powerfully broadened Pope.L’s artistic inquiries and expanded the formal language of his oeuvre. All investigated themes of time, theater, masking, and transformation. As visitors entered the main gallery, they encountered The Grove, an interior garden installation of potted palm trees—13 to 15 feet high—hand-painted and power sprayed white—a spectral fairytale forest of glowing trees within the darkened museum space. As explorations of the social, psychological, and environmental consequences of human willfulness, the palms in The Grove gradually deteriorated because of their painted ‘skin.’ The Grove revealed how man’s drive to bend nature adversely affects the surrounding environment and ecology.
Beyond The Grove, SMMoA visitors continued their fantastical journey through the gallery space and approached the flickering glow from the projected video, APHOV, presented on a free-standing screening wall, constructed of formidable, wooden struts reminiscent of old-fashioned drive-in theaters or highway billboards. APHOV was a formally constructed cinematic performance about performance, in a video about video. On screen, viewers saw a man wearing a bulbous latex mask resembling former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Behind him, they caught glimpses of the man’s “lair”—strewn with piles of items such as VHS tapes, cans of food, and cardboard storage boxes. The sound of the man’s breathing grew as his mask wept streams of glutinous artificial blood. The viewing area for APHOV was littered with furniture—dining room chairs, sofas, cribs, and high chairs. Through the semi-darkness, viewers could discern around them mysterious, locked, industrial doors through which they could only peek at an endless warren of cardboard storage boxes. Though Pope.L’s piece had social and political overtones; the work was as much about the medium of video and the passage of time as it was about narrative. The video was simultaneously ambiguous, melodramatic, and ritualistic.
As viewers navigated beyond APHOV, they encountered Pope.L’s final intervention—The Semen Pictures, digital scans of magazine collages made with human hair and semen placed within light boxes. Personal and intimate, these collages simultaneously featured imagery that was large-scale, mass-produced, and consumer driven. William Pope.L (b. 1955, Newark, New Jersey) lives and works in Chicago. He studied at Montclair State College and the Whitney Museum Independent Studio Program, New York, and received his MFA from the Mason Gross School at Rutgers University in 1981. For a significant stretch of the 1980s he was deeply involved in theater as a director, writer, and actor, and participated in the Mabou Mines Theater Intensive. From 1990–2010 he taught theater, performance, and philosophy at Bates College, Lewiston, Maine. Since 2010 he has been a professor at the University of Chicago. William Pope.L’s work is in the collection of many major museums including The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; the Studio Museum of Art, New York; the Art Institute of Chicago; and the Fogg Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge. His work has been widely exhibited, with one-artist shows at The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; The Art Institute of Chicago; the Renaissance Society, Chicago; The Portland Institute of Contemporary Art, Portland, Maine; Artist’s Space, New York; Kunsthalle Wien, Vienna, Austria; the Carpenter Center, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts; and the Santa Monica Museum of Art, among other museums. Significant group exhibitions to feature Pope.L’s work include the 2002 Whitney Biennial; Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art, Contemporary Art Museum, Houston; and the Prospect 3 Triennial, New Orleans.