William Pope L. at the Santa Monica Museum of Art

By Tucker Neel
Originally published in  Artillery Magazine. January 2008, vol.2 no.3, p. 40

Still from Pope L.s PHOV

Still from Pope L.'s PHOV

With Art After White People: Time, Trees, & Celluloid, Willliam Pope L. transforms The Santa Monica Museum of Art into a cavernous three-part journey bubbling over with theatricality and artifice. The Grove, the first section of the show, lures the viewer in with an ominous configuration of potted palm trees and piles of enshrouded debris dispersed in the darkened space. The scene is apocalyptic. The trees, painted white, decay and die throughout the run of the exhibition. A palm frond dangles from the ceiling as if to signal a world turned on its head. Faced with this dystopia, one cannot help but think of environmental disasters, Katrina being the first (but probably not the last).

Several hatches with small bulbous windows ringing the installation allow a glimpse into what looks like a horror-movie set. Archival boxes, stacked floor to ceiling, line narrow passageways awash with pools of fake blood. Pope L. has obscured the labels on each box, but the inference is clear – this is a claustrophobic, dangerous place, where information is meant to stay hidden.

Further into the exhibition comfy chairs and a large circular rug invite the viewer to sit and watch a projected movie. Opposite the screen and just behind the viewer a pile of household furnishings teeters in a corner, its interior contents illuminated by a television awash with static snow. The setting provides a fitting ominous mood for Pope L.’s newest video, PHOV, which stands for A Personal History of Videography.

The video consists of a solitary figure in a Donald Rumsfeld mask, his hand painted black, save one white finger, playing deliberately and slowly with a small ship in a glittery ocean diorama. As the camera pans and he looks at the archival boxes that surround him, holes just below each eye in his mask emit fake blood, which drips onto his shirt and into the diorama. With it’s cobbled together look, the piece seems to question the machinations that underpin commercial media, how this war (any war) is staged, as if to say that it’s not really Donald Rumsfeld the man that matters, but the contrived stage setting that gives him power.

Finishing off the show in a room separated from the rest of the exhibition by a wall of plastic sheeting are The Semen Pictures, light-box photographs of collaged body parts cut out of magazines, pasted together with blood, semen, pubic hair, and coffee grounds. Even though the original collages literally drip with abject traces of the artist’s production, the works appear beautiful, highly reductive and even conventional, especially when compared with other works in the show.

Does Pope L.’s work do anything more than point a finger at our naked emperors and their minions? It’s hard to say without the benefit of hindsight, but one would hope that such an ambitious project sticks in the viewer’s mind, a reminder to keep your eyes open to the backdrop, the mask, the decorations that support the smooth functioning of power.

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