Pope.L ’78, Whitney Biennial artist (2002) and Guggenheim Fellow (2004), was recently the subject of a trio of complementary New York City exhibitions organized by the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art and Public Art Fund. Instigation, Aspiration, Perspiration included representations of Pope.L’s famous and grueling “crawls” – in which he drags himself around public places like Tompkins Square Park or the length of Broadway – and installations such as Choir, which takes on the Flint water crisis. Pope.L is a theater director, writer, painter, performer, humorist and, according to MoMA, a self-described “fisherman of social absurdity.” The New York Times calls his work “art-smart, streetwise,” mixing issues of “art, the body, language and race into thorny, mind-bending tangles.” Recently, Pope.L engaged in a Q & A with Staff Writer Mary Barr Mann. His answers may make you smile, wince – and think.
Montclair magazine: With three exhibitions Instigation, Aspiration, Perspiration, put on by MOMA, the Whitney and the Public Art Fund last fall, that’s quite a trifecta for an artist. What was that like for you?
Pope.L: Working with one high profile art institution can be a test. Working with three, well – it was dandy.
MM: You’ve been a Guggenheim fellow, had other retrospectives, received grants and had much success. What has been the most satisfying aspect of your career?
Pope.L: I’m not sure that careers can be satisfying, at least not in art. In many ways, careers make you emptier. Maybe that in itself is a form of satisfaction? I’m not sure.
MM: What would you say are the biggest themes that run through your work?
Pope.L: Hunger, loss and ignorance abetted by language, grime, and the spirit of the tinkerer a la social justice.
MM: You are probably most famous for your crawls, some of which are particularly grueling. Which one stays with you the most and why?
Pope.L: Famous? Hmmm. I did a memorable crawl once across the cobblestones of the Charles Bridge in Prague. As I crawled, this Australian lady followed me, yelling at me at the top of her lungs, demanding to know why I was crawling.
MM: The topics you tackle are deadly serious. Yet there is almost always some wry humor, a wink. You seem to be inviting the world in, not shutting people out. In a scene where art sometimes seems exclusive and exclusionary, what can you tell us about inclusivity? (You might guess: We’re big on inclusivity here at Montclair State.)
Pope.L: Well, I am glad Montclair is big on inclusivity. When I attended it did not feel this way – there [were] only two black students in the art department and there [was] very little visible mixing on campus.
MM: Your work is thought provoking. What do you hope audiences take away from it?
Pope.L: I’ll reply in terms of quantity: I hope they take as much as they can carry. I hope they are thieves and criminals about it.
MM: You graduated Montclair State University in 1978, the same year as Times Square Crawl. You’d already studied at Pratt and at the Whitney and were headed for Mason Gross. How did Montclair State work into that brew that generated Times Square Crawl and your early work?
Pope.L: I was very lucky. The art department had great teachers: John Czerkowicz, Mac Adams, Leon De Leeuw, Peter Barnet, Ellen Mohammed, John Randolph Carter and Phillip Winters.
MM: What attracted you to Montclair State?
Pope.L: I had a friend who was already matriculating. He suggested I come here. He never graduated. Sometimes I miss him. We don’t speak much now.
MM: Your work bleeds across genres – painting, performance, photography, film. Montclair State College of the Arts has grown considerably since your days here, particularly in theater, film, dance and musical arts. What message for art students and other aspiring artists today do you have?
Pope.L: Don’t quit your day job. This is especially important after you get a tiny bit of success – if you have to quit then keep your day-job attitude. Stay hungry. And make sure that fame is only ever an appetizer.