You may not have heard of William Pope L., but he's one of the most politically and aesthetically vital living artists. Mairi Alice Dun takes us inside a revelatory book on his ethos and artistry.
This summer, following the crowd of people launching themselves on a mission to consume media in order to educate themselves on issues of race in today’s society, I undertook a reading list on that topic.
Black People Are Cropped: Skin Set Drawings 1997-2011, a book on the work of Chicago based artist, William Pope L., is filled with interesting commentary on both his work and the way connotations in language perpetuate racial biases. Pope L. uses a variety of understated materials to create his pieces; pens, markers, and graph paper give his work an unfinished, sketch-like quality. His works in this collection mix language and art, emphasising the particularities of language used intentionally to identify race, and also to comment on colour and all of its connotations. In the book, Pope L. says of his work and his life that “everything is a notation and he has been inscribing since the 1970s.”
One piece, entitled Brown People Are Illegal Immigrants (2008), displays the title written out on paper in a red marker outlined in black pen. Most of his works in this series are composed of a sentence regarding a colour classification of people and assigning them an adjective or simile. The title of each work is the work itself; as in Brown People Are Illegal Immigrants, the words are written in capital letters across a standard sheet of paper. Additionally, the colour chosen, red, as noted in one of the essays composed in the book, has many connotations. It signifies passion and romance, but also danger, a racist term for Native Americans, or a slang term for a communist. Pope L.’s works in this series almost always have a colour in their title and on their ‘canvas’. Words, as his works demonstrate, are as powerful as artistic images, and naming colour the way he does paints these racial categories into existence and puts a spotlight on aspects of otherness.
An interesting feature in the book was that it invites its audience to participate. The doodle-esque nature of Pope L.’s compositions can, like a lot of modern art, induce a dismissive response – and he seems quite aware of it. Pope L. includes two empty squares of graph paper toward the end of the book, both entitled For reader to insert notes cause readers too make your own skin set behind the plaid horizons of graph paper one drawing per module per epistle per corpuscle (2012), as if daring the reader to try and create the same meaning that Pope L. does under constrained parameters.
William Pope L. is also known for his performance art. His most famous stunt is his staged crawl through the streets of New York City, often dressed in unusual garb. His inaugural crawl of 1978 saw him sporting a smart, pinstripe suit, and embracing the concrete amongst the litter and rats. He has crawled many times since then, wearing everything from exercise gear, to an unbuttoned oxford shirt and a backpack, to a superman costume with a skateboard strapped to his back. Those who witnessed it were all confusion, and some were even angered. Many things could and have been divined from such a performance: some sort of satire derived from confirming a racial stereotype, or perhaps a commentary on the city’s tendency to look away from the people and things that lie on the ground.
Black People Are Cropped is small, paperback, and only 64 pages long, so a perfect weekend read for the busy-student lifestyle, though it may induce a lot of deeper thinking in its wake.