Last Thursday, October 11, 2007, William Pope.L gave an artist talk at the opening of his focus show, Drawing, Dreaming, Drowning, at the Art Institute of Chicago. This post is as close to a play-by-play account of it as possible. Some passages are more accurate than others, but the quotes, and in many places exchanges, are verbatim. Instances where I am paraphrasing are so noted. Of course one person attempting to describe any event will always fall short. This was particularly the case during certain orations by the artist, where concepts were more complex and difficult to record. These were also times I stopped note taking in order to be in the moment rather than removed as a documenter.
The stage of the Price Auditorium is set up like the set of a play. Music is playing, there’s a table with a lamp, some glasses, and a few random items. An image from the artist’s ongoing series Failure Drawings, #923, is projected. The drawing is of a kid watching a TV that has an earthworm/penis/rocket (as seen in other drawings) on its screen. A mic on a stand is in the center of the stage in front of it. Off to the other side are two orange leather chairs, presumably for a conversation. William Pope.L sits at the table going over his notes, perhaps working on a drawing, and changes the music, from an African inspired upbeat track to a wailing hillbilly folk rendition of the Johnny Cash classic Busted. Another folksy ditty comes on. Shades of Cold Mountain. Pope.L flips through some index cards and slips them into his back pocket. He returns to writing, occasionally crossing things out. It is getting tense, at least to me. Anxious rather. The room is filling up, everyone is talking loudly, when will things start? The wailing country chick is starting to annoy me. Pope.L gets up and reaches into a bag and puts on a knit hat. His head must be cold. He sits back down looking off into space, chin on his hand. And then goes back to jotting things on his cards. When are we going to start? The hat is a Green Bay Packers hat. I entertain a fantasy that he was a badass linebacker in the late 70s and is now a crazy artist. He keeps the hat as a reminder of the tough winter games when the ice and snow blew in off the lake. I am aware this whole thing could pretty much be a performance. It definitely is performative.
William Pope.L • #987F Penis with Glasses and Friends • 2004
Pope.L gets up, walks across stage and says something to the curators Lisa Dorin and Darby English.
William Pope.L: To the audience. How you guys doing?
Lights go down, spotlight goes up. He steps up to mic.
WP.L: I am going to introduce Lisa Dorin, who will introduce Darby English, who will introduce me.
He opens a Styrofoam chest and starts giving out Pabst Blue Ribbon, which to the art students in the crowd is right on the mark, but to the older donors...not so much. He thanks the Security and Visitor Services departments, he is friendly and very conversational. We got together and talked about "stuff.” Makes air quotes. That stuff comes up later as some of the logistics around installing and showing his work.
Lisa Dorin gives the background of the exhibition. She and Darby English had the idea for this show years ago. It seemed like an interesting idea, unexpected, a William Pope.L drawing show. Since the artist is mainly known for his performative works, such as those where he crawled, shimmied and wormed his way down city streets, such as the length of Manhattan.
Darby English gives an astute introduction to the artist and his work. Born in 1955 Newark,NJ ... Professor of Theater and Rhetoric at a college in Maine. I can't get all the details down, but the line which sticks out is:
Darby English: William has complicated the way in which institutions function with putting together shows.
After the introductions, and as he prepares to begin, William Pope.L has Dorin and English pass out more beer.
One of many cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon given out by William Pope.L at his talk at the Art Insitute of Chicago.
This can sustained considerable damage as a result of later activities that evening.
Pope.L Sits down with Larry Smallwood, an independant curator who works among other places, in Indianapolis. Pope.L’s note cards are questions for Smallwood ala David Letterman. There is lots of humor. He basically asks Larry about how they met, his art, and other things.
WP.L: What was my cat’s name?
WP.L: The clock is ticking.
L: My cats’ names are Otto and Hector. I was told your cat’s name was Whitey.
WP.L: No. Hmm, who do you think that says more about?
L: I thought you were in a video and you playing someone’s whose cat’s name was Whitey.
WP.L: Does anyone in the audience know my cat’s name?
Some Audience Members: Mr. Milk!
WP.L: OK it is getting a little trickier. What kind of car do I drive?
L: A ten-speed Schwinn, William doesn’t drive as far as I know.
WP.L: Why do I make art?
Larry does his best to answer, I have done my best to get the main ideas and his wording.
L: Interrogating systems. Your process is important. It was when we were working with you and I was in charge of a team of 25 White people trying to come up with a solution for your project about “what is Black,” and we didn’t even meet you in person until the very end. I realized that messing with the system like that was part of your work.
WP.L: Who is the person I love the most in the world? Let me give you a hint.
L: Yeah please that would be good.
Pope.L Whispers to Larry.
L: OK. I think it might be your friend from Chicago. Christine Tarkowski.
WP.L: You weren’t supposed to say the last name! looks out into audience, with a big smile on his face. Hi honey!
This concludes the interview portion of the evening. Pope.L gets up and starts passing out more Pabst.
WP.L: I’m not supposed to throw them. So I’ll pass ‘em out and you guys can collaborate. Tosses one a few feet to a man, who startled, drops it.
Starts presentation. Puts on a record of old timey kind of fun cartoony band music.
WP.L: What is drawing, its time action, event. I like the idea of a bunch of dawings...a bog of drawings. Drawings come in series, but that doesn’t mean they are linked. Or that there is no link, or that the link says what we want it to. No drawing is an island. Each drawing begets another in a bastardization.
He finishes reading from a sheet of notes, tosses over sholder. Reads, tosses, another shit. He likens us humans to penguins on an iceberg, on our back, limbs wiggling and saying, “I’m a drawing, I’m a drawing, I’m a drawing” in a high voice.
WP.L: Pours some water, drinks. Oh that’s good. What do we do now? How about some video? OK. Zack?
The video is of a little battleship in a diorama sinking into a plastic wrap ocean, there is heavy breathing, the camera pulls back to see a man, hands painted black and peeling, as if freshly burned in a bad fire. He has a rubber mask, like a caricature of a president. He notices a drop of blood on the fake ocean table on which sits the little battleship diorama. He stands breathing heavily, and blood pours from his eye sockets, except we obviously see they are coming out of tubes. The blood makes a river on the table. And also pools at the man’s feet, and then flows back behind the stage wall, through a doorway. He continues to breath heavily. The camera pulls back to reveal the whole set, and we now see an FX tech filling up a funnel and feeding more fake blood, and Pope.L, on the scene supervising. A young man walks in front and pathetically attempts to get out of the camera’s view. The puddle of blood behind the set is growing into a pond and a lake. Flooding a warehouse room of old file boxes. Labeled like 2000 – 2003. 1990-1999 and further back into the 50’s the 20’s the 1800’s the 1700’s. And the video ends.
Pope.L begins talking about the nature of film.
WP.L:Film as some kind of veil a thick veil. The frame celebrates whatever we do not see.
And then, a pause, and thinking almost to himself: HA HA HA Alright, that’s it. Ok I think we’re at the certain point in the hooha, the presentation. Where I take questions.
As the Q & A session gets under way Pope.L, Dorin and English pass out more beer.
Question from the audience: Wiliam… I love your work etc. ... Looking at the drawings in the galleries, especially on the hotel stationary, I couldn’t help but think of Kippenberger…
WP.L: Yeah that’s exactly what I’m doing.
I’d rather talk about Robert Ryman, he’s my man.
The audience member continued, asking about which artist/s inspire him, or something along those lines. Where Pope.L's idea/s for the installation and the works in the show come from...
WP.L: I’m interested in talking about Wittgenstein, thinking about that is easier, that’s where it comes from. Plus he was really good at piano. I like philosophers that make music.
The subject moved on to discussing the installation piece, Relational Painting aka Black is Beautiful... In talking to the museum about how the piece would be presented, and how it would be guarded. Pope.L said to them, “I don’t want any tape or buzzing things. You have to make your decision, of how close you will let people get. You’re adults, I’m not going to tell you about how to love your art how you want. It’s collaboration."
William Pope.L • Relational Painting aka Black is Beautiful... • Installation view in the artist's studio 2007
Question from the audience about how close viewers could get to Relational Painting aka Black is Beautiful...: You get preempted, you can read it. It kind of defeats the purpose.
WP.L: Well how close did you get, this close? Makes a foot length gesture.
Audience Member: A respectful distance. I was trying to read it.
WP.L: OK, see, audience feedback. I am learning something.
We gotta work on that. What’s your name?
WP.L: Well, Herb, we gotta work on that.
Herb: I don’t know about "we."
WP.L: Can you really feel the love here? You need a beer, Herb? Have you had a beer?
Another audience member: OK I am having a conversation with Herb in my head.
WP.L: What is your name?
WP.L: Ok Theaster...
T: So I am having a conversation in head. Herb can get close. He’s used to being allowed to get right up to a work of art, and being important. And I’m assuming here, but he can get right up there, but you have a 27 year old sister who’s been working all day and is waiting. She’s waiting for him, and he get’s to close, and she’s like, “I’m sorry, sir.” She’s just waiting, and she’s like, “Hiyah!” I like that.
There was much more discussed that isn't here. And of course the exhibition runs through January of 2008 and is definitely worth viewing. The essay written by the curators included in the brochure is clear and concise and offers a further in depth analysis of the artist's work.
> POPE.L AT THE ART INSTITUTE