William Pope.L, the man behind the exhibition at the Santa Monica Museum of Art titled "Art After White People: Time, Trees, & Celluloid. . . ," has never shied away from confrontation.
He once tied himself to the door of a Manhattan bank with sausage links and, clad only in a skirt made of dollar bills, tried to give the money away to passersby. Over a five-year span, he crawled along sections of Broadway, from Staten Island to the Bronx, wearing a Superman suit. This March, at Culver City gallery MC Kunst, he hung a female pirate statue upside down from the ceiling, replaced its head with a bust of Martin Luther King Jr. and turned it into a chocolate fountain.
For more than 25 years, the iconoclastic artist has been spitting out sharp satires and poignant meditations on consumerism, race, sexuality and poverty that subvert expectations and resist categories. His work is always irreverent, and to some perhaps even offensive.
Visitors to his first West Coast museum exhibition, at the Santa Monica Museum of Art through Dec. 23, can stroll through a forest of live palm trees painted white, recline on assorted furniture to watch a video projected on a billboard-style screen and peruse "The Semen Pictures," a series of digital prints of collages made from magazine images and the detritus of Pope.L's body and home, including hair, skin, blood and coffee grounds.
Created specifically for the museum, the three interrelated sections of the exhibition give an appropriately Hollywood twist to Pope.L's work.
The palm tree installation, titled "The Grove," evokes the popular Los Angeles shopping mall, but to Pope.L, the piece comments not on one particular site but on "the ideologies that Hollywood and malls share . . . that consuming is a form of self-expression." The paint, he says, is a metaphor for the hopes and desires we project onto palm trees, as symbols of an idealized Hollywood.
"We've superimposed onto this object a lot of different feelings about who we are and what we want. . . . And the question is -- and I guess you can ask this as an ecological question -- what is it really doing for us? Is it producing a fecundity? A growth?" In fact, the trees will slowly wither and die inside their toxic white skin.
Pope.L chose white not only for its racial connotations but also for its associations with emptiness and erasure. The exhibition's title, "Art After White People," also has a double meaning, at once respectful and dismissive of so-called white culture. "Am I following after a white model, i.e., in the trail of?" he asks. "Or is it 'after' in a sense of that which is obsolete?"
In the video installation "A Personal History of Videography," Pope.L takes aim at politics. A figure in a Donald H. Rumsfeld mask stands stoically on a stage, examining a model of a sinking ship and "weeping" streams of artificial blood. "You're not clear whether Donald Rumsfeld . . . is the villain or the hero," says Lisa Melandri, deputy director for exhibitions and programs at the museum. "And I think that this work . . . even though the images are extraordinarily powerful, is pretty subtle psychologically, because you don't know what side you should come down on."
The piece presents the political process as a ritual performance. "The wheel of politics has . . . locomotion at the same time it seems that one isn't getting anywhere," says Pope.L. "And yet there's this merry-go-round of players that trade places."
The act of videotaping and archiving these performances becomes a self-reflexive part of the ritual itself. In the video, boxes piled behind the stage are each inscribed with a date, suggesting a store of previously recorded tapes. By drawing attention to the endless cycle of political pantomime and the way it's consumed via media, Pope.L calls our passive habits into question. "What's the function of the ritual?" he asks, "Sometimes rituals are about simply the repetition."
In contrast to his often audacious performances, the 52-year-old artist is reserved yet genial, given to cheerfully idiosyncratic turns of phrase. "This is William Pope.L, giving you a toot," he says when he leaves a voicemail. He's based in Lewiston, Maine, and has taught at Bates College for 17 years.
He's been drawn to ritual since his days as an undergrad at Montclair State College in New Jersey. "I was interested at the time in Polynesian and African art," he says, "but the tradition that we talked about a lot then -- for example, the Cubists or the neo-Cubist traditions -- mostly talked about . . . form, not about what their use might have been."
Wanting to make "things that worked in the world," Pope.L enrolled in the master of fine arts program at Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University, where he studied with Geoffrey Hendricks and Robert Watts, members of the '60s experimental art movement Fluxus. But when he graduated in 1981, Pope.L found that his interests were out of sync with the art world.
"It was a really important period for selling very large paintings for a lot of money, and I was interested in doing things for very little money . . . that had to do with working with people and doing collaboration," he recalls. "So I decided to actually go more into experimental theater and to work in the street, and not to participate in the art world."
"He really kept the flame alive in terms of the purity and clarity of purpose from the original performance art movement," says Rene de Guzman, senior curator of art at the Oakland Museum of California and former director of visual arts at San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, which in March presented "William Pope.L: The Black Factory and Other Good Works," an exhibition inspired by the traveling performance troupe he has trained and organized. "He's really stayed very passionate about the reasons for the form."
Pope.L, whose surname combines his father's name with the first letter of his mother's maiden name, was strongly influenced by feminist "body art" of the '70s. "A lot of the women's work was about the body in a very intimate way that I was drawn to," he says, "because they weren't as moneyed, they weren't as supported . . . they had to use more impermanent materials. I was drawn to that kind of fragility."
He was also interested in German artist Joseph Beuys' concept of "social sculpture." As Pope.L interprets it, social sculpture is a three-dimensional form that seeks to make a positive intervention in the world. "I started seeing the link between '70s body art and the kinds of body formations that you had in the civil rights movement," he says. For Pope.L, the marches and sit-ins of the '60s were a species of performance art.
This fascination with the relationship between theatrical forms and politics emerges clearly in "The Black Factory." Beginning in 2004 (reprised in 2005 and 2006), Pope.L selected and trained a group of performers to tour the country in a van, doing street performances. An ever-evolving mix including minstrel-style song and dance, tarot card readings and communal tooth-brushing sessions, they were designed to break down inhibitions and foster a dialogue with audiences about issues affecting their communities.
"We were connecting with people, getting into some pretty personal and meaningful conversations about people and their lives," says artist Pasqualina Azzarello, who won a spot as a performer on the 2005 tour in a "Miss Black Factory" competition. Yet at the same time, she says, the crew's goal was to "find a way to turn it all inside out again, to invert it and question it and . . . leave a burr under the skin."
In the current exhibition's "The Semen Pictures," celebrity images are literally buried in skin (and hair, and coffee grounds and, of course, semen). Inspired by bocio -- West African ritual objects that often combine organic matter with the refuse of global consumer culture -- Pope.L sees them as a visceral mask over a seamless Hollywood facade. "Masks are only interesting because they have that edge to them, the possibility of showing something else," he says. "They're only interesting because they hide something."
Although his work questions the innermost beliefs behind our many masks, it is ultimately motivated by generosity, which he describes as a form of risk-taking. "I think you can always share a little bit of whatever you have," Pope.L says. "It's very similar to some of the physical performances I do where you take a risk, not knowing the outcome, with the willfulness and arrogance to believe that by doing it, you may actually do some good. That is a willful and arrogant act that I'm willing to be accused of."
'William Pope.L -- Art After White People: Time, Trees, & Celluloid . . . '
Where: Santa Monica Museum of Art, Bergamot Station G1, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica
When: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays to Fridays, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturdays
Ends: Dec. 23
Price: $5 suggested donation
Contact: (310) 586-6488 or www.smmoa.org