Pope.L’s wide ranging practice spans writing, painting, performance, installation, sculpture and video, which will be explored across both the SLG’s Main Gallery and Fire Station. Hospital is the artist’s first solo exhibition in a London institution.
With roots in philosophy and theatre, Pope.L’s career since the 1970s has centred on society, politics and contemporary culture. The work often reveals contradictory and provocative themes in language, gender, race, economics and community.
Pope.L’s exhibition brings together a set of installations and interventions, all of which are reconfigurations of previous works. In the Main Gallery three large-scale wooden towers are in states of gradual collapse. They are a reworking of the towers on top of which the artist, wearing only a jock strap and covered in flour, sat on a toilet and consumed newspaper pages in his performance, Eating the Wall Street Journal, 2000. For this latest version Pope.L has removed the live performance element, shifting the focus to the dynamic of the toppling tower structures and viewers’ capacity to imagine what might have happened or what is still to come.
Further installations across the four galleries in the SLG’s Fire Station explore ideas of memory, decay, forgetfulness, convalescence or mourning. The artist describes them as “sites where personal and institutional metaphors of care metastasize into scenes of spills, shelves with holes, fallen towers, broken bottles, dripping liquids, always something ongoing, always something undone and wanting fixed with dust or stains or trampled flowers. Hospital is that sensation of lying on your back on a stretcher in a hallway staring at the veins in the ceiling above while it stares right back“.
Pope.L (also known as William Pope.L; b.1955, Newark, New Jersey) is an artist best known for his provocative performances and public installations. While centering on themes such as gender and race, his works explore the systems, conflicts, and beliefs inherent to our society and culture. Pope.L studied at Pratt Institute and Montclair State College, where he received a BA in 1978. He also participated in the Independent Study Program at the Whitney and received an MFA in 1981 from Rutgers University. His works have been exhibited at many significant institutions, including the Anthology Film Archives, Franklin Furnace, Artist Space, Museum of Modern Art, New Museum, Performa, The Sculpture Center, the 2002 and 2017 Whitney Biennials, the Carpenter Center in Boston and the Geffen at MOCA Los Angeles.
Abjection and disaster become a bleak sort of comedy in the hands of Pope. L. Hospital, the American artist’s first solo institutional show in the UK, should have been a (long overdue) celebration of this maverick figure. But the artist’s sudden death in late December now makes his work’s sculptural emphasis on human presence all the more charged, its humour another shade darker. ‘Hospital’, Pope. L suggests in the exhibition notes, has its root in the Latin for ‘stranger, foreigner, guest’. There is a lot of physical debility on show here – leaky fluids, bowels, intoxication – but the theme seems to expand here into something bigger, about the disempowering effect of institutions, or of being institutionalised. Everything about the work obfuscates, obscures and rebuffs, pointing us outwards to the gallery’s context, to the ‘artworld’ and its etiquettes and protocols, its power in managing the patient known as ‘the artist’; who, in this case, has nevertheless checked out too early.
An installation taking over South London Gallery's main exhibition space by Pope.L, known for confronting the racial and social inequalities shaping American society, emphasises a profound absence. White wooden scaffolding mimicking a collapsing tower is crowned at its 18-foot peak by a toilet that appears to have ejected its sitter. There are newspapers everywhere; mostly editions of the title that prompted the creation of the work in the first place. Conceived after seeing an ad for The Wall Street Journal insinuating fortune for its subscribers, Eating the Wall Street Journal refers to a performance Pope.L staged at MoMA, New York, in 2000. Over five days, Pope.L wore a jockstrap, covered himself in flour, and sat atop his latrine tower, tearing the newspaper up and chewing on pieces doused with milk and ketchup. Pope.L has since called iterations of the work part of a titular family. This 2023 version was created for the artist's solo show Hospital (21 November 2023–11 February 2024), as a performance without a body, where 'the material is performing.'
I first heard about Pope.L’s work at the 2002 Whitney Biennial, where he had recently embarked on the multi-year performance, The Great White Way (2001–09). It was a confounding spectacle: a Black man crawling down Broadway in a Superman costume with a skateboard strapped to his back. I subsequently had the opportunity to hang out with him a few times. Conversations with Pope.L were just as confounding as his work. His words were thought-provoking yet funny, the sound of his laugh often formed an intrinsic part of any debate. My last encounter with his art was ‘Impossible Failures’, a joint exhibition with Gordon Matta-Clark at 52 Walker, New York, last year – an aptly titled show for an artist who was dedicated to experimentation no matter the outcome. I was amazed, as I have been with so much of Pope.L’s work, by what he was able to do with the simplest of materials: Vigilance a.k.a. Dust Room (2023), for instance, employed simple Home Depot products to create a magical scene in which Styrofoam flew around like snow in a blue, wintery light. Ever the trickster, he ensured the piece could be seen only through a small window cut into the side of a dumpster. I could have watched it for eternity. I will greatly miss Pope.L and his startling work.
I didn’t know what to expect as I pushed my way through the red plastic “butcher’s shop” strips obscuring the South London Gallery’s traditional exhibition space. But collapsing timber towers, a soundtrack of sifting and creaking noises, trampled orange magnolias and leaking fluids that reeked of intoxication and sterilisation, added a unique atmosphere and texture to the exhibition, enhanced by the presence of the artist himself, William Pope.L. At the press preview in November, Pope.L conversed freely with the gallery’s director, Margot Heller, and attending journalists and critics. Dressed casually in layered chequered shirts over jeans with a felted-wool baseball cap covering his greying locks, he sipped coffee from a paper cup, relaxed and at ease. When Heller said he had once described himself as “the friendliest black artist in America”, he quipped: “That was a long time ago. I’m more bitter now. I’ve lost my sheen.” This kind of dark, dry humour, combined with playfulness, a strong sense of the surreal and a willingness to delve into the bleakest of places, typified the life and practice of the artist who established himself with a series of “crawls”.
A memorial to the performance artist who once ate the Wall Street Journal, eerie woodcuts and the immersive Book of Kells – all in your weekly dispatch. Exhibition of the week: Pope.L: Hospital. This intense evocation of Pope.L’s provocative performances, which included sitting on a toilet nearly naked, eating the Wall Street Journal, has become a memorial after his death during the Christmas holidays. South London Gallery until 11 February.
Pope.L’s new exhibition, ‘Hospital’ at South London Gallery is imbued with a sense of aftermath and desolation. Blending the absurd, political and social via sound, film, performance, installation and sculpture, ‘Hospital’ takes us through the breadth of the American artist’s practice. There is a lilting sense of passing time and gradual dilapidation as; elements of the show will leak, drip and decay throughout its duration. “I found myself thinking about landscape, a single, lone figure in that landscape. But the figure is not vertical,” Pope.L told Plaster. “I found myself thinking about horizontal things, gravity, the supine, collapse and of course their opposites or almost opposites as well as the human feelings associated with these binaries. In addition, I have had to, for various reasons, visit hospitals more frequently lately. All of this has combined to get me thinking in a hospital-like direction. People used to go to hospitals to die. Now we go to be what they now call cared for, which is really just a form of repair, redemption, recusing but hospitals, try as they might, try as they might, care as they might, are still places of depression, super-germs and woe.”
The New Jersey-born US artist, known for his physically demanding performances and multa-media installations, talks about care as a metaphor for wider social and political malaises and the challenges of working with colour. "i think about colour all the time, i don't know what good it's done -- i think of colour as non-colour. as a mark, a letterform. not because it's really a mark or a letterform... it's out of convenience or an embarrassment of not really grasping colour, but who does grasp! colour anyway, really? tell me how can one grasp, grab, fondle, attach to colour? i mean colour is not just tech or social coding (i'm not dissing your bone, muscle, blood analogy here) -- colour's elusiveness in a way proves its utility -- colour is one of those funny, amazing things, very much a part of the material world yet discursively a ph-PH-PH-PH-PHantom -- maybe coulour ain't the problem, maybe it's us -- of course it's us, it's always fucking us -- people say colour is intuitive, ok, OK fine but it's also phenomenal and material, you can measure it, but people's codings of colour do not necessarily follow what, how we measure -- blood, bone, muscle -- and plastic, flourescent light and isopropyl alcohol, that is what i say."
From hip-hop in New York to witchcraft in London and a testament of enduring love in Chicago, here’s our round-up of the must-see shows this month. Rounding out a great year of art shows are… even more great art shows! The art world has really been gifting us all of 2023, and December’s list isn’t letting up. From celebrating Charlie Ahearn’s iconic film, Wild Style in NYC to surrealism and witchcraft in London, and love and intimacy in Chicago, there’s something under this tree for everyone. See you in 2024! American artist Pope.L brings his extensive career to South London Gallery for Hospital, an inaugural London exhibition that navigates the crossroads of philosophy and theatre. He has explored society, politics, and culture across literature, painting, performance, installation, sculpture, and film, often confronting language, gender, race, economics, and community through provocation. Until February 11, 2024.
In 2000, American artist Pope.L created the world’s most precarious toilet. It was a vast rickety wooden tower, topped with a porcelain throne upon which he sat, covered in flour, and ate The Wall Street Journal. It was an absurd, obscene mockery of capitalism and whiteness, and it was signature Pope.L. The tower is reconstructed here in the main building, but it has toppled, its wooden beams have snapped, the bog hangs in mid-air, the whole thing is caked in dust and dirt. Is this the artifice of capitalism crumbling before you? The armour of whiteness failing? Bottles of cheap booze – Buckfast and Cactus Jack – are left dripping onto the floor, bowls of dust are there for you to sprinkle on the art, speakers play plopping and whooshing sounds. It lacks the essential performance element that makes Pope.L’s work so vital, obviously, but as a post-9/11 scene of destruction, a tower of American dominance that has utterly failed, it’s brilliant.
London: “Hospital” by Pope.L, at South London Gallery from November 21, 2023 to February 11, 2024. Why It’s Worth a Look: Since the 1970s, American artist Pope.L's work has remained unconfinable, spanning writing, painting, sculpture, installation, and performance. On display across South London Gallery’s Main Gallery and Fire Station, “Hospital,” is his first solo exhibition in a London institution. In a statement, Pope.L said, “‘Hospital’ is that sensation of lying on your back on a stretcher in a hallway cold staring at the veins in the ceiling above while it stares right back.” Know Before You Go: The Main Gallery houses a reworking of Eating the Wall Street Journal, 2000, showing three massive leaning tower structures upon which Pope.L once sat on a toilet, coated in flour and wearing just a jockstrap, while he ate pages out of the Wall Street Journal.
Pope.L may not call himself one of the most influential performance artists working in the US today, but he has been known to pass out business cards declaring he is “the friendliest Black artist in America”. Known for his provocative and often absurdist works that deal with race, economic systems and language, the Chicago-based artist and educator works across multiple disciplines, from installations and film to painting and writing. His work is as distinctive as it is expansive. The hallmark of Pope.L’s practice is his use of iteration and intervention, both of which are evident in his Crawl series, which saw him move on hands and knees across large swaths of New York City on several occasions between 1978 and 2001. These performances were meant to counter “verticality”—a concept he uses to underscore the wealth and health it requires to be socially mobile. The gruelling physicality of the Crawls was only one aspect of them; equally important to the work was the reaction of onlookers, which could largely be summarised as compulsive avoidance.