by Jonathan Griffin
The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, Los Angeles
The sheer physics involved in keeping something like this off the ground are staggering. The flag is nearly five metres high by 14 metres long, and weighs God knows how much in polyester and reinforced stitching. It should be noted that, in American flag terms, William Pope.L’ s Trinket (2008/2015) is not an XXL or even an XL but, in the warehouse galleries of the MOCA Geffen, where it flies only a couple of metres off the ground and reaches nearly to the ceiling, it feels colossal. Four thundering Ritter fans, their blades as tall as a man, keep it perpetually roiling in the air.
Pope.L first showed the work just weeks before the American people elected their first black president. The piece did not anticipate triumphalism, but was born in the context of uglier prejudices that often emerge as a democracy shifts its gears into audible motion. And even though today, seen in the inescapable shadow of unchecked police brutality towards black people, Trinket seems more acerbic than ever, it is not a work of protest and neither is it as cynical as its title implies.
Like most Americans, Pope.L remains committed to the principles symbolized by the Stars and Stripes, even if, like many Americans, he is critical of his country’s current (and perhaps inevitable) estrangement from many of those principles. ‘People need to feel their democracy, not just hear words about it,’ he is quoted as saying in curator Bennett Simpson’s fine exhibition text. Just how derogatory is Pope.L’ s title, then? He is not an artist who lets such questions be easily solved. ‘Let the word scuttle away,’ writes Simpson. ‘There is a roaring thing in the room.’
This exhibition, a mini-retrospective that shares its title with the largest and loudest work in the space, might best be understood as the re-creation, under laboratory conditions, of the ecology of the symbol world. The flag, exposed to sustained pummelling, begins to fray and unstitch at its flappiest end. Bi-coloured onions painted in red, white, blue, black and green are arranged in rows on 17 tables like organically self-desecrating flags; half are sprouting green and half are shrivelling and rotten. The work is titled Polis or the Garden or Human Nature in Action (1998/2015), ‘human nature’ being just one of the kinds of nature at work in this show. A video titled Small Cup (2008), filmed inside an abandoned warehouse in Maine, shows goats and chickens trampling greedily over a seed-strewn and ruined architectural model resembling, chief amongst many neoclassical administrative edifices, the U.S. Capitol.
As hard as it is to escape metaphor in Pope.L’ s work, I get the sense that there are better pathways into his thickly knotted oeuvre. The artist feels his way through ideas, holding them close to his body or turning them in his hands until they come apart. A series of 24 small, sloppy paintings titled Circa (2015) combines, in red, the word ‘fuchsia’ with partner words, drawn from a rap rhyme generator. Most are illegible, fuchsia is misspelled throughout, and the scarlet colour is nobody’s idea of fuchsia anyway. That idea seems to come apart pretty fast but it reminds us that Pope.L is a literary artist, and that he mistreats words just as he does other kinds of language.
Near to Trinket, Pope.L contrived an exhibition analogue to the gruelling crawls that he has performed along city streets and across snowy, suburban landscapes. In Migrant (2015), three performers dressed in puffy coats, long platinum wigs and white beards haul themselves along three-tiered wooden shelves, curling themselves into corners and dangling from ledges. (At least two of the performers are black; the costumes made it hard to tell and, anyway, it is unlikely that Pope.L would insist on such literal consistency.) In so many of his works that treat whiteness as a substance – a physical fact – Pope.L seems to be testing whether it is possible for ‘white,’ as a word, ever to transcend its metonymic associations, especially when deployed in the work of an artist who is black. That it does not, or cannot, is surely at least part of his point.
In many senses, the exhibition ‘Trinket’ is a meditation on surplus, on what is incommensurable and what refuses assimilation. Beside the four Ritter fans, a fifth stands silent, waiting in reserve. A programmed lighting rig tries out different effects. The rippling flag, aside from being exorbitantly long, had one extra star sewn onto it, adjacent to the blue box. Does Pope.L’ s extra star fix the old flag, in some way? Or does it break it by overloading it, making it unfit for purpose? The artist wrote that the star is ‘for you’, which connotes not only a gift but also the burden of responsibility, a forced stake in the game. Pope.L would never tell you what to do with it, but he will insist on reminding you that it is there, and what it feels like, which is heavy, and dark, and a little frightening.
First published: Frieze, issue 172, June, July, August 2015