William Pope.L is famous for (among other things) carrying a business card that identifies him as “The Friendliest Black Artist in America.” It’s a clever gag because it makes itself true, in a way, every time it draws people closer. The card must be especially useful when Pope.L does business with people who dread Black men or Black artists. But the gag here is always already the second trope Pope.L has thrown at us. Whatever his card says under his name, in approaching anybody named “Pope.L” we have first to confront funky punctuation and capitalization. Our initial problem is that extra initial — how does one say this name aloud? Without instruction, nobody gets off to the right start with Pope.L. As a word, his name fates us to bepuzzlement, uncertainty, and mispronunciation, sure signs that we are, or he is, from another world. The card is funny, but his tropes are not mere jokes, and we are left to ponder the deeper significances of even tiny black marks on a white page.
Pope.L has opened his first solo exhibition at — and, so, in a way, handed his business card to — the University of Chicago, where he recently commenced teaching for the Department of Visual Arts. The name of his show, Forlesen, like his last name, is a bit of wordplay which indicates a double consciousness: the title is the title of a 1974 science fiction short story by Gene Wolfe, and when you say it aloud, you make the sound of its German homophone, “vorlesen,” which means “to read aloud.” Coming at us as it does, from speculative literature, and from a misspelled word in another language, Forlesen is not an easy show, but it becomes powerfully legible when one registers that some of its difficulty resides in how we resist thinking about what is obvious, about what is right in front of us. Pope.L’s pun on the German “vorlesen” twists Freud’s aphorism, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar” into, “Sometimes it’s important to pay close attention to what’s right in front of you, on the surface, because that is complicated enough.” The German “vorlesen” calls to mind how much of our imaginative lives once took place during and just after we were read to, aloud, back when writing was squiggly bodies on pages and we did not know that black marks could point to meaning(s) far from our embodied sensory experiences.