Grotesque Alphabet

courtesy of Renaissance Society

William Pope.L. Photo courtesy of the Renaissance Society

Some species of bird feed their chicks by regurgitation: food is first ingested by the mother before climbing back up her esophagus. The mother’s young stop their chirping just long enough to take in the slick meal.

Text-based art after, say, 1975 often calls to mind all that chirping and hacking. At first glance, one might think that William Pope.L’s “Forlesen,” currently up at the Renaissance Society, is something like a mother’s post-digested mouthful, a show that has been chewed up and spit out by a critical environment that owes much to Derrida. “Forlesen,” titled after a short story by sci-fi and fantasy writer Gene Wolfe and whose most striking piece is a quarter-section of a giant wooden penis, seemed upon first visit to be a kind of postmodern exercise, a rehearsal of the same hokey tropes.

The penis–rather, the “phallus”–has been cut up–nay, “deconstructed”–just as the text of Wolfe’s story has been sliced into bits, as only four, discontinuous pages of it are framed and hanging in the gallery.

Pope.L’s drawings, fixed to two free-standing walls (also penis-shaped), are sketches of the spaces between lines of text, so parts of letters–the top of an “e,” the bottom of an “s”–jut into the composition like sets of crooked teeth. The point, you see, is not the text, but the holes within text, the yawning canyons that give the lie to our assumptions about logos and truth. More lecturing, I thought, as I imagined my head craned upward like a hatchling being fed so much pre-chewed meaning.

“Forlesen” does not invite, but rather preempts such a tidy reading. My second visit to the gallery proved that what I had taken to be Pope.L’s plodding critique was, in fact, my own. The opening had been crowded, noisy–the din of conversation had, among other things, discouraged the kind of patience required of a show like this, patience not only to gawk at a drawing or the black helium balloons that dot the room, but patience to read all the pages of Wolfe’s story, patience to listen to the sound coming from a wooden sculpture titled “DuBois Machine.”

A pair of trousered legs stretches upward, a dab of red paint marking the seat of the pants. A girl’s voice (Eden Strong) reads a script about Pope.L’s curious experience with something filched from Martin Luther King’s personal papers. The story is of the artist’s doomed attempt to implant MLK’s DNA into a fruit and other projects, such as an attempt to package his legacy into an aerosol can and a website called All of this is stitched to the story of his sister’s death, chance encounters, and the demands of the academic bureaucracy that both enables and frustrates the artist.

courtesy of Renaissance Society

courtesy of Renaissance Society

So history is revived, maybe even rewritten, when we throw together our own artifacts, our own MLKs and DuBoises. The legacies of these men–men who, as Pope.L reminds us, were subject to temptations of the flesh–must share in the fate of flesh itself: deterioration, discoloration, disappearance. The large wall that welcomes visitors to the gallery, “Curtain,” is covered with ketchup and joint compound, mixed to a paste that doesn’t quite adhere to the wooden surface. During the opening, this skin gleamed and perspired, falling in moist strips–a week later, most of it lay curled and dry on the gallery floor like ceramic shards from some long-buried civilization.

So we see that space, the space of the gallery, yes, but also the space inside the huge phallus that houses televisions playing porno tapes, cannot be grasped without an awareness of time. Plaster peels, memory is jogged and reprinted, and we come to understand that the real claims of identity–male identity or, equally central to this show, black identity–are not reducible to questions of color or dangling members, but are instead embedded in a history that is scattered, mutable, already slipping away from us.

Renaissance Society, 5811 S. Ellis Avenue, Cobb Hall 418. Through June 23. Tuesday-Friday, 10am-5pm;Saturday-Sunday, 12pm-5pm. (773)702-8670.

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