Chicago artist Pope.L's exhibition at the Neubauer Collegium, "My Kingdom for a Title," is an intimate rumination on life in the COVID-19 pandemic. Curator Dieter Roelstraete, who has a long relationship with the artist, described the gallery show to the Herald. This transcript has been lightly edited.
This exhibition came about because, of course, what had initially been planned for this lot was cancelled. Certainly our program has suffered from the pandemic, and we've had to cancel and postpone. I approached (Pope.L) in the early summer last year asking whether he'd be interested in doing a show here with us. This was something that I had in mind for sometime, and the occasion was right for it. He was keen to work together again.
What's curious about the show is that when we started talking about the exhibition, we knew early on that the core centerpieces would be these works, which are kind of what he's best-known for at this time. These works are called "skin-set drawings." They're part of an ongoing series that he's been working on since the mid-'90s. They're basically musings on color.
"Violet people are plusher." He's probably got hundreds of these now, and they can vary widely in size and material, but they always have the same structural logic of beginning with violet people, brown people, white people, brown people, black people, blue people. They have become his signature work. He's known for a variety of practices; he's known as a performance artist, but in kind of the more narrow visual art field, these types of drawings and paintings have become kind of his trademark. We knew early on that that's what he wanted to do.
These smaller pieces are the result of the quarantining of his own practice. They're small. They're domestically scaled. He's made much bigger ones. He's also made smaller ones that have much more of a doodling feel, but this is definitely a choice scale that was prompted by the conditions of having to work from home in the isolation of our moment. They were made in the spring.
These drawings, that was the first thing he knew. The second thing that we knew was that he was going to show them encased in these medicine cabinets, which of course comes charged with a variety of associations. Reflectiveness, of course. If things are closed, it's impossible to take a picture of them without yourself showing up in them. That was the second thing.
Thirdly, he knew that he was going to do something with the space, alter it to make it a more interesting environment for showing work. He then settled on this element, which in a way draws the attention. You come in, and the first thing you notice is the canopy of face masks. When he first suggested that that's what he wanted to do, I was surprised, taken aback a little bit by the frontality of the approach. This is on the nose, very literally — a very emphatic, direct commentary on where we are, living in the shadow of this global health crisis.
But if you know the work a little bit and if you spend some time kind of researching a little bit, you'd find that he's an artist known for a certain kind of elusive touch. He's very difficult to kind of pin down what the work is about, if it's about anything at all. And he's a little bit of an enigmatic character who obviously cultivates this enigmatical-ness in his performative work. There's this kind of interesting tension in the work between hard-to-grasp, hard-to-read, I'm not going to say "mystery" of this presentation, but the idiosyncrasy of this presentation as well as the very direct allusion to where we are.
Protective film remains on some of the medicine cabinet mirrors.
There's kind of like a very deliberate improvisational touch to what he does, and improvisation as a mode is very important to what he does. A very deliberate provisionality, which sounds a little bit paradoxical but is very key to what he does and who he is as an artist — making sure that if you expect something to be incredibly clean and crisp and straightforward, he'll kind of very deliberately sabotage that.
When you show artworks inside of medicine cabinets right now, in 2021, then one association that you can make is that there's a suggestion here of the medicinal property of art. Art as something of a healing force but also as something that's somewhat strangely inaccessible.
There's kind of a play, in a way, with this idea of access, which is a funny idea to play with when the idea of accessing art is, of course, incredibly difficult. To see this show, you have to make an appointment. You have to know to email, and you have to fill out paperwork. In that sense, he's a Black artist who makes work about being of color and this idea that people have color, but he's not the Black artist who's going to make Blackness into the core of his practice. But of course the one thing that's impossible to deny is that it's very different being Black in the time of COVID-19 from being White in Chicago.
This exhibition, which in a way looks a little bit like it's about the problem of accessing art, is also obviously meant to be read as a reflection on the problem of people's access to proper health care, based on where they live, the color of their skin, their income — which in Chicago is an incredibly, incredibly poignant reality. If you live in Austin or Chatham, it's going to be so much harder for you. We know that it's so much harder for you to access anything, really, the basic services of life. But at this time that we're in right now, this COVID-19 pandemic has shown that access to health care in particular is so incredibly important and is politicized and racialized as well.
Anyway, that is a little bit of my read is of this work now. And this is of course something that the artist is going to contest at every turn. He's someone who doesn't like to talk about his work in that way. But here we are, beneath this cloud of face masks, it's hard not to talk about where we are.
When it became clear that we would have to cancel a number of shows, this was the late spring of 2020, nobody knew that January '21 we'd still be standing here, right? If you think back to the early weeks of the pandemic, there was this very naive assumption that maybe this was going to last a couple months. Only the very pessimistic, I think, had a sense that this would drag on for years. And it obviously has done so.
When I invited Pope.L to do a show, I basically gave him carte blanche: "Here's a space. Do whatever you want. It'll be great, because you're great, anyway — an artist of singular genius." I didn't expect him to address our circumstances so directly. Perhaps I had expected him to dodge the issue, perhaps, more, because that's often the nature of his work. I was also interested in maybe looking towards art that certainly wasn't going to be illustrative of where we are.
It's inevitable that everyone now makes work about the situation we're in. I write a lot, and most of what I've written about is about the inability to see art because of the pandemic. Obviously it casts an enormous shadow, but it's also important to keep in mind that art goes on regardless in a way, and in a way it's sort of symbolic of the resilience of life as such.
I'm not sure if this is a morbid show, really. The sunlight is just so beautifully tracking this course throughout the exhibition. It's not a lugubrious show. It's not macabre. It's not flippant. The great challenge of art right now is to kind of keep a fine balance between a responsible measure of escapism, right? Offering the opportunity to be somewhere else with our minds and our thoughts, to not be once again in this cauldron. But then again on the other hand you also expect art to be responsible about chronicling the moment that we're in.
"My Kingdom for a Title" runs through May 16 at the Neubauer, 5701 S. Woodlawn Ave. Reservations are available beginning Thursday at neubauercollegiumgallery.com.