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.