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Using King to raise questions

March 16, 2007|David Pagel | Special to The Times

"The Void Show," William Pope.L's second solo exhibition in Los Angeles, is a combustible mixture of irreverence, desperation and wit that captures the tenor of our times. You don't know whether to laugh or cry.

Suspended upside-down from the ceiling of MC Gallery is a larger-than-life hollow plastic statue of a saucy pirate babe, her stance and dishabille suggesting eternal Mardi Gras. Her head has been lopped off and replaced by a plaster bust of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., slightly smaller than life-size and coated with gold.

Incandescent light glows from the interior of Pope.L's recycled pirate, and thick chocolate syrup drips from the top of the civil rights leader's head, pooling on the floor in an ever-expanding puddle that resembles spilled blood. On the serving tray in the pirate's hand, Pope.L has affixed a mirror, allowing viewers to catch their reflections against the backdrop of dark, glistening syrup.

Strictly speaking, "A Vessel in a Vessel in a Vessel and So On" is a clunky chandelier. Or a supersize, nonstop syrup dispenser for some misbegotten ice cream stand. Or a ceiling-mounted vanity for someone who has everything.

And that's the tip of the iceberg. Things get complicated when the metaphors loaded into Pope.L's piece spill out and draw in viewers.

To my eye, the sculpture does not mock King. But it does raise profound questions about his legacy, his place in history and, most important, in public consciousness. Sexuality -- and what people make of it -- also enters the picture, with the endless supply of sugary sweetness oozing from the upended bust like an overflow of libido. And humor plays an essential role. The piece is both utterly ridiculous and right at home in our topsy-turvy world.

It also raises questions about art's place in life, and where politics and entertainment fit in. Pope.L's sculpture takes its place alongside Jonathan Borofsky's "Ballerina Clown," affixed to a Venice building facade, another piece of wicked genius that combines comic authority and tragic pathos.

A second installation fills the rear of the gallery, turning what first appears to be a small monochrome painting into a hole in the wall and then into utter nothingness: pitch-black emptiness into which viewers pour their fears and fantasies. Two small drawings round out the show, their wiry scribbles recalling the acerbic absurdity of H.C. Westermann. Pope.L's four pieces are certainly ridiculous. And they might be sublime. But that's for each viewer to decide.

MC Gallery, 6086 Comey Ave., L.A., (323) 939-3777. Through May 12. Closed Sundays and Mondays.


Exposing myths of the Pilgrims

Artists often complain about museums, criticizing what they show and how they show it. For Sam Durant, actions speak louder than words.

His latest installation gives vivid form to the idea that if you want something done right you had better do it yourself.

Durant has transformed Blum & Poe Gallery into a modest, temporary museum. The size and tenure of "Scenes From the Pilgrim Story: Myths, Massacres and Monuments" may be small and brief, but its subject and ambition are not. He wants to change the way Americans think about Thanksgiving, laying bare the bloodshed and treachery that lie behind the national celebration of abundance.

In the main gallery a huge circular pedestal spins slowly, showing one life-size diorama and then another. The first portrays Squanto, an English-speaking Indian teaching the Pilgrims how to plant and fertilize corn. The other side shows Capt. Miles Standish standing over Pecksuot, a Pequot Indian on hands and knees, a hunting knife stuck in his chest and his head bowed in mortal defeat.

The first scene depicts the myth, still taught to schoolchildren and entrenched in popular consciousness. The second depicts the reality of the first wave of immigrants to North America. Just after the deadly confrontation between Standish and Pecksuot, a Colonial militia was dispatched to kill off the Pequot people. When the campaign was completed, Plymouth Gov. Edward Winslow decreed a feast that, celebrated annually, became Thanksgiving.

A second gallery de-mythologizes Plymouth Rock. Durant has installed a fiberglass replica of the rock, an authentically garbed mannequin and a sign that tells the grisly story of Metacomet, a Wampanoag leader who fought for his homeland's security in the King Philip's War from 1675 to 1676. He was dismembered, one hand sent to England and his head displayed for 20 years on a pike in Plymouth, Mass. The survivors, including his wife and son, were sold into slavery in the West Indies.

A documentary video in a third gallery and a hall lined with five pedagogical panels provide ample historical background. In both, Durant lays out the ways myths replace facts, turning blood-soaked reality into cheery tales that make the spoils of victory all the sweeter for the victors -- yet even more bitter for the vanquished.

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