William Pope.L: Artists Space/the Project/mason Gross Art Galleries at Rutgers University
Dailey, Meghan, Artforum International
Over the course of two decades of confrontational performance work, William Pope.L has used his body to probe race, desire, endurance, and deprivation. Once you see one of his projects, you're not likely to forget it--although it's possible you might not recognize it as art. For Tompkins Square Crawl, 1991, the artist, dressed in a business suit and awkwardly holding a tiny flowerpot, laboriously crawled on his stomach around the East Village park. (The sight of a black man intentionally lying in the gutter confused and enraged one onlooker so much that he called the police.) Skewering everything from patronizing white people to the myth of black-male sexual prowess through alternately ridiculous, menacing, clownish, shamanlike, abject, or completely disgusting actions or costumes, Pope.L uses the figure of the homeless person as a continuing model or foil. For ATM Piece, 1997, wearing nothing but a skirt made out of dollar bills, the artist attached himself with an eight-foot length of Italian sausage to the door of a Chase bank in midtown Manhattan. The idea was to hand customers a dollar as they entered; the action lasted about a minute before security was on him. Not since Adrian Piper's actions of 1970-71 has an artist taken the everyday politics of race so directly to the street.
Although Pope.L has shown at the Project in New York and Los Angeles and was included in the 2002 Whitney Biennial, "eRacism" is the first survey of his work. This "Friendliest Black Artist in America" (as the MIT Press monograph that functions as an exhibition catalogue is titled) has taught theater and rhetoric at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, for eleven years, and two Maine institutions--the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art and the Institute of Contemporary Art at Maine College of Art, with Diverse Works Artspace in Houston as a third partner--co-organized this traveling show. Locally, Artists Space and Mason Gross Art Galleries at Rutgers University (where Pope.L received an MFA in 1982) divided up the host of objects, installations, collages, and about two hours of performance documentation that made up "eRacism," while the Project showed photographic prints and updated documentation of performances. …