– Summer 2008

Pain Should Not Be Ignored: On Facing One’s Bogeyman

Rodney McMillian

William Pope. L, The Great White Way, 22 miles, 9 years, 1 street, 2001-ongoing, street performance. Photograph: Pruznick/Grey. Courtesy of the artist.

William Pope. L, The Great White Way, 22 miles, 9 years, 1 street, 2001-ongoing, street performance. Photograph: Pruznick/Grey. Courtesy of the artist.

Editors' Note: When we decided to consider the work of William Pope.L, we invited the artist Rodney McMillian to contribute one of the essays. He chose to incorporate in his text an interview he conducted with artist and writer Michelle Grabner, originally intended as her contribution to a catalogue for an exhibition by Pope.L at Kenny Schachter ROVE Gallery in London (it was never published). Here, we reprint the interview followed by McMillian's later reflections on Pope.L's practice.

Rodney McMillian, January 2008

Pope.L was my bogeyman. I turned him into my bogeyman, almost a nemesis, when in fact the difference that divides us is one of ideology, not of desire. William Pope.L was my bogeyman because for me he embodied a belief that there is no way out of a black-and-white, binary existence. I believed Pope.L actively performed personas or actions to make apparent the fear, apathy, disgust, objectification, confusion, ambivalence many have towards the black male body. He is aware of and uses those understandings to challenge the historical reality of what it means to walk in this skin in America, and perhaps anywhere. However, I question whether his actions provide enough of a forum to address the complexities of contemporary representations in which skin colour is part of a much larger spectrum.

Asked to contribute some thoughts on Pope.L's work for Afterall, I wanted to continue from the earlier interview with Michelle Grabner because I had not stopped thinking about Pope.L's works or my responses to it. Why was I invested in a dialogue on work that I had found problematic on so many levels? I was reminded that art, ideas and politics are always

  1. See Mark H.C. Bessire (ed.), William Pope.L: The Friendliest Black Artist in America, Cambridge and London: The MIT Press, 2002.

  2. Lakshmi Chaudhry, 'Mirror, Mirror on the Web', The Nation, 29 January 2007. Also available at http://www.thenation.com/doc/20070129/chaudry (last accessed on 19 March 2008).

  3. 'Interview with William Pope.L by Lowery Stokes Sims', in M.H.C. Bessire (ed.), William Pope.L, op. cit., p.62.

  4. Ibid.

  5. Walker quoted in Hilton Als, 'The Shadow Act', The New Yorker, 8 October 2007.

  6. In a 1999 PBS documentary titled I'll Make Me a World, artist Betye Saar described Walker's art as 'revolting and negative, and a form of betrayal to the slaves … basically for the amusement and the investment of the white art establishment'.

  7. See M.H.C. Bessire (ed.), William Pope.L, op. cit.

  8. Rodney McMillian, 'parts-pieces and fragments', in Doryun Chong (ed.), Ordinary Culture: Heikes/Helms/ McMillian (exhibition brochure), Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 2007, n.p.

  9. The New York Times, 1 February 2007, Section A.

  10. See http://www.theblackfactory.com (last accessed on 3 April 2008).

  11. In the crawl performances Pope.L dons a costume and literally moves through the streets of Manhattan on his belly.

  12. For examples of Pope.L's writings, see M.H.C. Bessire (ed.), William Pope.L, op. cit.

  13. Hal Niedzviecki, Hello I'm Special: How Individuality Became the New Conformity, San Francisco:

  14. City Light Books, 2006, p.28.

  15. See http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1569514,00.html (last accessed on 19 March 2008).