William Pope.L’s wall-size contribution to Ruffneck Constructivists, Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania
Through August 17
By Daniel Gerwin
It’s the first thing you see when you enter Ruffneck Constructivists, Kara Walker’s selection of artists whose work posits a Black Architecture, to use her term. William Pope.L confronts us with an enormous wall, thirty six feet wide and fifteen feet tall, painted with Benjamin Moore home decorating colors (half the wall apricot and half peach), gridded in pencil with a slice of baloney tacked to each square on the grid. Every slice holds a small photograph: a black and white portrait glued to the meat with a glob of white paint. All manner of faces appear, a blend of the city’s ethnicities, if not of all its age groups. The baloney, which has been hanging on the wall for about ten weeks at the time of this writing, is dry, curling, shredding, peeling apart. Together with the photographs they become gruesome ID badges, pinned like miniature crucifixions.
Walker conceives of architecture in the largest possible sense, as a “refusal to accept the limits of social space,” to quote her curatorial statement. In place of a baloney-photo, one square of Pope.L’s giant grid holds a framed text he wrote, indicting Philadelphia’s marketing strategy and by implication its urban planning. Pope.L, an elder statesman of performance art who for decades has winkingly billed himself as the “Friendliest Black Artist in America”, notes that Philadelphia’s Tourist Commission describes a Koreatown, a Greektown, a Polish Village, but omits the black community, or in his words, the “Black Hole”. I spent some time on VisitPhilly.com, the Tourist Commission’s website, and a search for “Koreatown” yielded one result, “Polish Village” produced 46 results, “Korean” 634, “Polish” 81, and “African American” turned up 4,280 results, suggesting that the website may actually give Blacks the attention they are due as 44% of the city. On the other hand, the website’s “neighborhoods” link identifies 14 neighborhoods, of which only a few have large Black populations. The blighted neighborhoods of North Philly, for example, are left out.
Pope.L chooses Jews as the basis for the wall design: his framed text explains that the wall is hung with 688 pieces of baloney, corresponding to one percent of the Jewish population of Philadelphia, which he gives as 688,000. A search of recent demographic data (including the census) shows a high estimate of 215,000 for the city’s Jews. Philadelphia’s total population is 1.5 million, less than half of whom are White, so 688,000 Jewish residents has to be a wild fabrication. It is a peculiar decision to single out Philadelphia’s Jews and provide a false count of the population – in doing so Pope.L knowingly commits the very crime that Claim puts on trial: he quantifies and divides. We should know better, he seems to say, than to trust a bunch of baloney, which everyone knows is not kosher anyway.
Claim plays games with numbers to attack the way we categorize ourselves, and each other. Roughly half the photographs are unrecognizable: out of focus, with poor contrast, lacking enough visual data to portray a specific person. The grid summons the ghost of modernist order as well as the structures imposed by urban planners who chart the city and divide it into neighborhoods, ethnicities, and areas targeted for economic development (or not). Pope.L has consciously built a broken system: the squares are full of color irregularities, most blatantly a dripping green splotch of paint toward the upper left of the wall.
Pope.L’s framed note refers to the baloney as flesh, and it is impossible for me to look at all this ragged lunchmeat without thinking of car bombs and IEDs blowing people to bits in Afghanistan, the Middle East, and elsewhere. The Benjamin Moore colors make a startling contrast because they speak to our need to create a comfortable shelter. Claim haunts our efforts at domesticity and exhumes the bodies hidden beneath our streets (the words ghost and haunt appear more than once in his text).
Pope.L is addressing not a local Philadelphia problem but a global human affliction, what the artist describes as a “tide of everybody-vision molecules / everywhere dividing our covet dividing our common like a pot roast.” No rhyme or reason organizes the portraits, no demographic information is established by isolating each person in their square. The grid refers only to its power to impose structure, an arbitrary force exerted through language above all else. The semiotician Ferdinand de Saussure famously pointed out that meaning in language is based upon difference, dividing up from down, men from women, Jews from Blacks. Pope.L’s grid presents nonsense in the guise of representation, and irrationality as logic. His framed note describes the wall-grid as a mask, and quantifying as the act of a drunk. A bottle of Mad Dog (alcohol 13% by volume) occupies the square immediately to the right of his text, underscoring the truth that Claim is driving at, perfectly in line for an absurdist like Pope.L.
The title of this work is taken from the sheet of paper on which the framed text appears: its header reads NOTES ON CLAIM, and the artist has typed O’HARE AIRPORT, FEBRUARY 2014 below his signature at the bottom. I have filled out an airport claim form myself in the past year, and nothing induces stomach-turning chaos like the sight of the baggage carousel shutting down when your bags have not arrived. To accept Pope.L’s Claim that our systems are false, that any attempt at order is false, is to arrive in a strange country without any luggage. The insights of this work are not novel, but Pope.L has masterfully conveyed them in a manner rich with visual power, troubling internal contradictions, and viscerally unpleasant associations. It’s a bit like walking into a room and hitting a wall.
Daniel Gerwin is an artist living in Philadelphia. His work may currently be seen in The Time Before, a two-person show with Kay Healy, at the Center for Emerging Visual Artists. He is a participant in the Art Writing Workshop sponsored by the International Art Critics Association/USA Section and Creative Capital/Warhol Foundation.