PHILADELPHIA — When I first saw William Pope.L’s “Claim” (2014) I was intrigued by its emphatic presence and endless detail. Created for the exhibition Ruffneck Constructivists at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) at the University of Pennsylvania, “Claim” is an enormous wall, about a foot thick, 36 feet wide, and 15 feet tall. The wall is painted with Benjamin Moore home decorating colors (half the wall apricot and half peach) and gridded in pencil, with a slice of baloney tacked to each square on the grid except for two. Every slice holds a small black-and-white portrait photograph secured with a glob of white paint. All manner of faces appear, a blend of Philadelphia’s ethnicities, if not all its age groups. The baloney and photographs meld into gruesome ID badges, pinned to the wall like specimens.
At a glance, “Claim” is orderly, but spend a few minutes and irregularities leap out. Roughly half the people in the photographs are unrecognizable and even ghostly: hazy focus, poor contrast, not enough data to portray a specific individual. I found one that was just a black smudge on which Pope.L drew a smiley face in white paint, and one that seemed to have no picture at all, just a paint smear. I saw lots of white, Asian, and black men and women in their twenties, all with the graceful good looks of youth, gazing toward the camera or just to the side. There are faces where only the top of the head and eyes are visible. Early on, Pope.L attempted to crowdsource the portraits with the ICA’s help, and a framed text he wrote that sits in one of the grid squares at eye level says the photos “were taken on the STREETS / ENVIRONS of Philadelphia.”
Looking at the grid squares reveals color oddities, such as a blue paint layer showing through the peach in some cases, or a section of color on the floorboard that violates the system of the overall color arrangement, and most blatantly a dripping green splotch of paint toward the upper left of the grid. These deviations signal that we are not dealing with a grid that achieves structured resolution, but rather a postmodern mess where order is merely a specter. Several months into the show the baloney was dry, curling, shredding, and peeling apart.
Pope.L’s wall is the first thing you see when you enter the exhibition. The show’s curator, artist Kara Walker, is interested in an “intentional misreading,” as she writes in the catalogue, of Russian Constructivism through her selection of 11 artists that she believes posit a “theory of architecture based around a ruffneck, antisocial, hip-hop, rudeboy ethos.” Walker conceives of architecture in the metaphorical sense, as a “refusal to accept the limits of social space.” For example, Deana Lawson presents snapshots taken during her cousin’s regular visits to her boyfriend in prison, in which the cousin, the boyfriend, and their child all pose together. In these pictures Walker finds evidence of a constructivist strategy for creating family even where conventional home life is impossible. She envisions Ruffneck Constructivists as “creative destroyers,” a counterforce to officially sanctioned architecture and engineering of social space.
Much of the art Walker has assembled is distinguished by the rawness of its rage, sorrow, or both, suggesting that after over 50 years of institutional critique in art, addressing the basic politics of representation has become formulaic, and artists must bring more to the table to engage the present moment. Parts of the exhibition nevertheless feel predictable, such as the one-liner in which South African artist Kendell Geers recreates the structure of Duchamp’s “The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass)” but replaces the images with seven bullet holes. I just sighed when I saw it. Still, there are several outstanding pieces, including Khalil Joseph’s 2012 short film “Until The Quiet Comes,” in which a young black man is shot dead in gang warfare, rises up, and performs an exquisite dance. Only four minutes long, it is riveting and heart wrenching. Joseph’s exceptional work and the other video on display, “Deshotten 1.0” by Arthur Jafa and Malik Sayeed, both deal powerfully with the plague of gun violence destroying the lives of America’s black youths.
By comparison, Pope.L feels removed. His framed text included in “Claim” indicts Philadelphia’s marketing strategy and by implication its urban planning. Pope.L, an elder statesman of performance art and a famous trickster who for decades has winkingly billed himself as the “Friendliest Black Artist in America,” notes that Philadelphia’s Tourist Commission describes a Koreatown, a Greektown, a Polish Village, but omits the black population, or in his words, the “Black Hole.” I spent some time on VisitPhilly.com, the Tourist Commission’s website, and while repeated searches for “African American” produced very high numbers of hits (not, admittedly, the most scientific method, but arguably an indicator of some sort), the website’s “neighborhoods” link identifies 14 areas, of which only a few have large black populations. The impoverished neighborhoods of North Philly, for example, are left out.
In a blatant statistical distortion, however, Pope.L singles out Jews in his wall design: his framed text explains that there are 688 pieces of baloney in the work, corresponding to 1% of Philadelphia’s Jewish population, which he gives as 688,000. (Although his math is also off — 688 is .1% of 688,000.) With deliberate absurdity, he calls the faces on his wall “purported” Jews, as he explains, “the portrait-photos were taken at random … with no consideration of who might be Jewish and who not.” Recent demographic data for the city’s and greater Philadelphia’s Jews varies, ranging from 214,600 to 275,850 — but either way, 688,000 Jewish residents is a wild fabrication. His text cites the “most recent census” as his source, but the US Census has not collected data on religious affiliation since 1936.
Being Jewish, I am rankled by Pope.L’s choice to exaggerate the numbers of the Jewish population in order to highlight blacks’ invisibility, even if he wants us to ask questions. Pope.L knowingly commits the very act that “Claim” decries: he quantifies, divides, and misrepresents. What exactly is the claim here, that Jews are overrepresented and African Americans underrepresented? Has the smell of baloney been replaced by a whiff of bigotry? The wall makes me think of “Somebody Blew Up America,” Amiri Baraka’s infamous 2001 poem reacting to 9/11, with its bizarrely anti-semitic passages, but in a more complicated way I am reminded of the artist Santiago Sierra, who calls attention to the exploitation of laborers by abusing them himself. In maneuvers such as hiring immigrant laborers to stand in a row and have a single line tattooed across their backs, Sierra does disturbing things to shove our noses into responsibilities we tend to ignore. Is it necessary to be malignant or perverse in order to expose social evils? Can such gestures even accomplish their aims? Walker has consciously chosen artists who raise these kinds of questions, ending her catalogue essay with the hope that the show turns our attention to those who “do ‘bad’-not necessarily for the common good.”
Pope.L’s framed note refers to baloney as flesh, and it’s impossible for me to look at all this ragged meat without thinking of the gun deaths so movingly addressed by Joseph, as well as of car bombs, IEDs, and missiles blowing people to bits in Afghanistan, Iraq, Gaza, and elsewhere. The Benjamin Moore colors make a startling contrast because they reflect the American aspiration to anodyne, comfortable shelter. In a world of such extreme bloodshed and injustice, “Claim” haunts any effort at domesticity or faith in rationality. The words ghost and haunt appear more than once in the artist’s text, and the square immediately to the right of it is the only other one without a baloney-photograph: instead, it holds an open bottle of Mad Dog (alcohol 13% by volume).
Perhaps through the discomfort his work generates, Pope.L has conjured a minute and momentary inkling of the violence inherent in daily encounters with racism. After all, each square on the grid is a kind of cell, which makes each face, in effect, a prisoner. US prisons are an egregious case of discrimination: although blacks are only about 13% of the American population, they make up 40% of American inmates. “Claim” articulates the paradoxical polarities of the Modernist grid: it points back to itself as a self-referential system, recalling 20th-century masters such as Piet Mondrian and Agnes Martin (artists whose use of the grid’s limitations actually allowed them to be transcendent and expansive), while replacing the possibility of transcendence with the mire of biased subjectivities that divide us from each other. But “Claim” is also undermined by its tongue-in-cheek hypocrisy and statistical deceit; it lacks the force achieved by Joseph (or by Pope.L himself, in his best performances), when art firmly lays hold of urgent social problems by focusing on deeply charged inward experience. Ultimately, “Claim” doesn’t go much farther than surface provocation. It’s like walking into a room and hitting a wall.
Ruffneck Constructivists continues at the Institute of Contemporary Art (University of Pennsylvania,118 S 36th Street, Philadelphia) through August 17.