Is Chicago Ready for William Pope.L?

The artist’s Forlesen exhibit at the University of Chicago might look like porn, but it’s really about race.

PHOTO: COURESTY OF THE RENAISSANCE SOCIETY

William Pope.L used to call himself “the friendliest black artist in America.” He may actually be the most complicated artist in America. Pope.L (pronounced “pope el”) makes art about race, specifically about being a black man in America, more specifically about what it’s like to be inside the black hole of Pope.L’s mind. “WHITE PEOPLE ARE BLACK PEOPLE BY NEUROSES,” reads one of his drawings from the Skin Set series. “BLACK PEOPLE ARE BESIDE THE POINT,” reads another.

Pope.L became an associate professor of art at the University of Chicago by way of Maine, where he taught theater. In 2007, he had a solo show at the Art Institute of Chicago, which included many drawings about failure made on napkins.

Pope.L’s latest experiment is the exhibition Forlesen. It takes its title from a sci-fi story by Gene Wolfe and is a fascinating fantasy about a place where the topic of race is more playground than provocation. Dozens of drawings are pinned on the hallways of Pope.L’s spaceship-like giant penis structure that fills much of the gallery. Viewers can roam through the long structure as manipulated tapes of bargain-bin pornography play inside. The sexual perversity is furthered in some of Pope.L’s drawings that look like they’re made with dried pools of semen and shaved body hair. (The hair is real; the semen is translucent acrylic gel.)

But the porn seems like a distraction from what is really on Pope.L’s mind: race, and how we perceive it. “There’s a real richness to this misreading of what is there and what we imagine or what we fear or what we want or what we don’t want,” said the artist at a recent talk held in conjunction with his new exhibition. Riffing on skin color, and the way we oversimplify skin color, Pope.L got deep about “white” people: “Well, what are they? Are they really white? They’re kinda like mysterious.” (The full tape of his artist talk from last week can be viewed here.)

“I grew up initially in an all-black neighborhood,” continued Pope.L at the public lecture, “So, you know, looking at my first white person was kind of like what, what is this creature?” He went on the joke about “green people” too, then summed it all up: “Being literal has its advantages, but it takes you to abstraction. If you take language that literal, you’re going to get to a place where you’re really floating above the ground of language. There’s a certain magic there, I think.”

There are indeed many magical moments in Pope.L’s new exhibition. Just know this: the first thing you’ll encounter upon entering the gallery is a large brown wall encrusted with ketchup. “It breathes,” says Pope.L.

William Pope.L shows through June 23 at the Renaissance Society, University of Chicago, 5811 S. Ellis.

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