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Pope.L exhibit at Renaissance Society is a puzzling affair

“Forlesen” new exhibit by Pope.L will openApril 28 Renaissance Society.  |  John H. White~Sun-Times

“Forlesen,” a new exhibit by Pope.L will openApril 28 at the Renaissance Society. | John H. White~Sun-Times

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♦ April 28-June 23

♦ The Renaissance Society, University of Chicago, 5811 S. Ellis Ave.

♦ Free

♦ (773) 702-8670;

Updated: May 28, 2013 7:27PM

Talking to William Pope.L is fun but not easy, because the interdisciplinary artist jumps from thought to another, and sometimes answers questions with just a word or two or a seemingly kidding retort.

“When he reasons stuff out, there’s a kind of absurdist logic that goes along with it, but it’s still a logic,” said Hamza Walker, director of education and associate curator at the Renaissance Society.

Some of the intertwined directions in Pope.L’s work will be on view there April 28-June 23 in the internationally known artist’s first solo exhibition in Chicago since joining the faculty of the University of Chicago in 2010.

Among the all-new pieces on view will be a temporary 40-foot-long abstract painting realized with ketchup and joint compound, 50 drawings in his continuing text-based “skin set” series and a 10-foot-tall wooden sculpture titled “Du Bois Machine.”

The exhibition’s title, “Forlesen,” is taken from a novella by noted science-fiction writer Gene Wolfe. Just as the reader is called on to piece together the bizarre episodes gathered in that story, Pope.L intends the ambiguous relationships among his works to be open to interpretation.

“This show was created for people to wonder about,” he said. “It’s a puzzle, and the nature of puzzles is that they can put you off – the puzzle is too difficult — or they can intrigue you. They can mystify you. There are various possibilities.”

Susanne Ghez, the society’s executive director and chief curator, had been aware of Pope.L’s work for several years, but she made the decision to spotlight him after seeing one of his videos in “30 Americans,” a 2012 show at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

The work, titled “The Great White Way,” documented his 5-year project to crawl the entire 22-mile length of New York’s Broadway wearing a Superman outfit and a skateboard strapped to his back. It was one of more than 40 “crawls” that he has done worldwide as part of his “eRacism” series.

“I thought,” Ghez said, “‘He’s in my own background here at the University of Chicago. What am I waiting for? Let’s do something with him and give him the opportunity to do some new work.’ And this is all new work, so that’s why it’s going to be hard somewhat to define until we actually see it.”

Issues of class, culture and especially race have been at the center of his 30-year career, with Pope.L once proclaiming himself “the friendliest black artist in America,” a moniker that was used as the sub-title of the catalog accompanying his 2002-03 touring retrospective.

“I coined it, God bless myself,” the artist said with a smile.

Is the appellation still important to him? “It was, and I think to a certain extent it still is,” he said.

But in the days leading up to this exhibition, Pope.L sought to downplay the theme of race in his work, saying at least partially tongue in cheek that only “25 to 27 percent” of his pieces deal with that subject.

At the same time, though, he was quick to assert that the art world demands that artists who are African-American decide how they want to be marketed — as black artists or as just artists.

“So, I decided I’m going to play between the categories,” he said. “Sometimes, I’m going to insist that I’m a black artist and sometimes that I’m going to insist I’m an artist. It might make it difficult for people to know how to package me, and I have to accept that.

“But I don’t think any particular position is more true than the other. I don’t want to deny that I’m a black artist, because that is true. At the same time, I don’t want to deny that I’m an artist, because that is patently true. So what is more true is both.”

Kyle MacMillan is a local free-lance writer.

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