Studio International

Published 09/08/2021

Pope.L: Notations, Holes and Humour

The pioneering American performance artist Pope.L makes his London gallery debut with an explosive, chaotic assault on language itself

Modern Art, London
15 July – 28 August 2021


Modern Art is full of holes. The walls of the recently opened St James’s branch of dealer Stuart Shave’s commercial gallery are riddled with tiny circular gaps. Piles of dust lie beneath each hole. Occasionally, sound emerges from them. Contort yourself to face one and peer in, and you will be rewarded with brief, oblique videos. In one, a camera pans across some buildings, too small for me to recognise. In another, a man wearing basketball shorts walks up a staircase. I am not sure exactly what I am watching, but I feel thrust into the role of a voyeur, a peeping tom. The discomfort is not confined only to my knees.


Discomfort is part and parcel of the work of Pope.L (b1955), the American artist responsible for these apertures. He is best known for his grimly amusing performance pieces. One, Member aka Schlong Journey (1996), saw him walk through Harlem in a white suit with a white pole attached to his crotch. The pole could extend up to 4.25 metres (14ft). Eating the Wall Street Journal (1991) had him ingest, then disgorge, pages of the newspaper while sitting on a toilet, washing his papery lunch down with ketchup and milk. ATM Piece (1997) saw him tied to a bank branch with a string of sausages, wearing little more than a skirt of dollar bills which he offered to passersby – an inversion of the homeless man sitting next to the cash machine asking for money.


Perhaps his most famous contribution, however, is his eRacism series (1978-present), in which Pope.L and/or other endurance performers slowly crawl their way through an urban space. The first in the series saw him crawl through the gutters of Times Square wearing a business suit: a very conspicuous outing for an African American in 1970s New York. He has since worn a Superman outfit, while crawling down the entirety of Broadway, pushing a flowerpot, an endeavour that took almost an entire decade. For Pope.L, the crawler stands for someone who has lost the “verticality” of financial stability and respectability, and instead descended into the unperceived depths below. When you peer behind the walls at Modern Art, perhaps you are being forced down to that subaltern level.


Despite the extremity of his practice, Pope.L has gradually become accepted by the art establishment. Since the turn of the millennium, his reputation has steadily grown, buoyed by a sequence of major works with more direct political and social engagement. In 2019, he had the extraordinary honour of a triple-venue retrospective across the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), the Whitney Museum and the Public Art Fund. But even at the apex of the New York art world, Pope.L remains provocative: he originally wanted to title the MoMA show How Much Is That Nigger in the Window.


Since 1997, Pope.L has worked on the Skin Set Project, a series of works largely on paper and canvas that looks at the intersection of race and language. Notations, Holes and Humour features several works from this series across Modern Art’s two storeys. Letters – the raw material from which written language is formed – are scattered across the floor in piles. Texts sit at the centre of many of the works. Joseph Kosuth they are not. Pope.L’s phrases are often incomprehensible, his spelling and grammar seldom accurate. Even case is garbled: “Whitet PEO ABStR aTIoN” reads Next to Last Silk Screen (2018), a rare, smooth-surfaced work in purple and yellow.


This linguistic roughness is matched by an aesthetic one, as if his canvases have been stuck with a hundred tiny darts. There are rips and tears, stains and splatters. They can use a surprisingly complex bevy of materials, many of them ordinary and quotidian, like leftovers from an office store cupboard. One near-textless work, Oedipal Snowman Problem (2019-2020), includes acrylic, charcoal, copy paper, push pins, PVA, painter’s tape, wooden discs, Post-it notes, collage, permanent marker and archival pigment prints. This largely abstract piece, a blizzard of blue and white cuts and abrasions, possesses a strange, peeling beauty. One wonders how meticulously its chaos was planned.


Praises and Beached (both 2020) are two pen-and-ink works housed in Plexiglass boxes in mirrored medicine cabinets. Inside are texts written on canvases sheathed in graph paper. “Violet people”, reads one “on they [sic] beaches turning into graves”. The other has “violet people sing the praises of the omissions”, before decomposing into nonsense – “comisseissss”. Pope.L’s message here seems clear: dividing people into groups based on skin colour is absurd. It seems not just a strike against the racial categorisation of people, but an attack against language’s claim to certainty. Why should we trust a series of letters hurled together?


This point is made more forcibly still in the gallery’s downstairs room with Circa (2014), a collection of smeary, sticky works in oil, painted on canvases whose ends are crumpled like un-ironed pillowcases. Nearly all of them feature the word fuschia (sic) painted in a bloody red, beneath which lies another word ending in “-a” — plastic, lingua, ultra, vaguely related to fuchsia by sound, but remote in meaning. Denoting both flower and colour, fuchsia itself has an ambiguity. Pope.L’s paintings contain neither, frustrating the word’s meaning. Circa is compelling because of its irregularities. One of the paintings is in green and wordless. Another sits on the floor, which has been carpeted with fake turf. A third is absent completely. Tiny objects are stuck into some canvases, including a pencil and a drawing pin, as if Pope.L were trying to fix his paint to place. All this slipperiness seems to reflect that of language itself — a seemingly solid wall, punched through with holes.