For the past fifteen years, William Pope.L has proclaimed himself "The Friendliest Black Artist in America."
A professor at the University of Chicago and the subject of "Forlesen," a solo exhibition currently up at the school's Renaissance Society, he is indeed friendly and black. He is also known for crawling the entire 22-mile length of New York City's Broadway while wearing a Superman costume, in a five-year-long performance titled "The Great White Way." A decade before that he walked Harlem's main drag with a 14-foot-long white cardboard penis. In between he ate and regurgitated pieces of the Wall Street Journal, while sitting on a toilet perched atop a 10-foot-tall tower.
Visitors to the Renaissance Society will not encounter actions as abrasive, debased or buffoonish as the gestures that Pope.L has created live since the late 1970s. Nor should they expect to find artworks that register in any recognizable way as friendly, despite the fact that Pope.L copyrighted his chosen moniker in 2001 and used to distribute it on business cards. The exhibition disturbs everything, including any understanding one might have of the artist's past work, as well as whatever meanings one might hope to gain from the array of drawings, texts, sculptures, video and architectural structures on display here.
The disruptions begin with the exhibition title. "Forlesen" sounds like it might be an Anglicization of the German für lesen, which means "for reading." Language and communication — that seems friendly enough. But "Forlesen" also reverberates with the moody, foreboding echo of "forlorn," and though signification coalesces throughout the show via materials, colors and letters, it just as quickly dissipates.
Think of skin, for instance, and its usual connotations in terms of humans and race. But walls, not just people, have skin. To divide the Renaissance's cavernous space and provide display corridors for a series of small sketches titled "Skin Set Drawings," Pope.L built a set of irregularly shaped partitions. Their matte black and translucent white plastic surfaces could indicate some caricature of human hues, but they've got nothing on the sweaty membrane peeling off the wall that faces the gallery's main doorway. Made from an unstable combination of ketchup and joint compound, the crackling light-brown expanse gives off a disconcertingly familiar tang and piles up on the floor like so much sloughed off dermis or cracked old leather. Underneath is cheap, gridded pressboard — nothing more, nothing less.
These "Skin Set Drawings" are the most recent installment in a drafting exercise Pope.L has undertaken over the last dozen years via a thousand-plus sketches. Previous compositions presented a single confounding sentence each; the 50 or so on display here instead diagram the space between letters. Mystification remains, though much occurs in these forgotten gaps: spills, indents, scrawls, holes, errors, doodles, black ink marks and kinky human hairs that look a lot like them. A few of the letter fragments even resemble cartoonishly crude elbows and ears. There's vaguely recognizable life happening here in between the bits of words, but it's messy and sort of gross.
Language is everywhere given and taken away, set out and unsettled. Certain works bear titles that would be puns if there were anything funny about them. "Sun" identifies a small, mottled photograph of the artist's son's back reflected in a mirror. "Well" designates three glasses of water set on three shelves, evaporating receptacles of wellness sometimes drawn from wells. "Ellipsis," the grammatical term for a set of dots indicating an omission of words, is made physical by black balloons filled with helium and strung throughout the gallery. As these shrivel and fall to the ground pathetically, to be periodically replenished with buoyant new models, the words that they might have stood in for are lost to the ether.
Ironically, the one artwork that depends the least on language may be the most easily deciphered, and pat. "Unfallen," a stack of four television monitors, runs a sequence of degraded, blurry video scenes whose flesh tones, holes and creases, and audible moans indicate their origins as bargain-bin VHS porn tapes. When a cinematic "The End" scrolls by this seems confirmed, even when the words are upside down or in a foreign language. That the monitors sit inside a giant walk-in sculpture that resembles a cross between a Quonset hut, a missile and a penis is, indeed, further substantiation.
Even stories themselves offer little stability. Pope.L includes a few here, some by his own pen, others not; they are as engrossing as stories ought to be and as perplexing as the artworks they hang among. "Parable," by the Hungarian philosopher Ervin Laszlo, tells of one person's search for truth through a gentle but perverse tale of misunderstanding, impossible translation and silence. Indeed, it could have been the title and storyline of the exhibition, if these weren't already filled in just such a way by "Forlesen."
For in fact "Forlesen" is also the name of a story, the first and last pages of which hang on either side of the gallery's main entrance. Written in 1974 by the sci-fi author Gene Wolfe, page one of "Forlesen" introduces Eugene Forlesen, a man who wakes up in his small home under the spell of some kind of amnesia. He doesn't understand much of anything but he makes an effort, and his wife helps him with the basics, including breakfast. He's got a lot to learn, including his wife's name, that she and he are human beings, his place and type of employment, the details of his house, and so much more.
The last page is a kicker. "I want to know if it's meant anything," Forlesen says. "If what I suffered — if it's been worth it." The reply: "No. Yes. No. Yes. Yes. No. Yes. Yes. Maybe."
As for what happens in between, well, there are always ellipses. But Pope.L has not placed any of his black balloons near the doorway, neither hung nor fallen. There's just the visitor, standing there reading these two pages and wondering, worrying, crushingly, about everything. The ellipses are everywhere else, and they're multiplying.
"William Pope.L: Forlesen" runs through June 23 at the Renaissance Society, 5811 S. Ellis Ave., 773-702-8670, renaissancesociety.org.
Lori Waxman is a special contributor to the Tribune, and an instructor at the School of the Art Institute.