What's wrong with donning a long white phallus and parading through the streets of Harlem? Don't ask artist William Pope.L; ask the National Endowment for the Arts. Pope.L had been planning to fund the aptly titled Member with a grant from the NEA -- that is, until he mentioned his plan to a reporter.
"I told them about some other things," says Pope.L, "but that's the one they were concerned about The next thing I know there's this article being faxed off to different conservative organizations around the country and a bit of a controversy about the NEA going out of its way to misuse taxpayers' money."
That mid-'90s scandal abated but came back to annoy Pope.L in 2001, when the NEA denied a $42,000 grant request for a retrospective that would highlight the artist's performances, installations and sculptures from the past 25 years. "My file," says Pope.L, a theater and rhetoric professor at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, "had been red-flagged as a problem."
The NEA denial didn't stop the show, though. "William Pope.L: eRacism" got funding from the Andy Warhol, Rockefeller and LEF foundations, and the exhibit is on view at DiverseWorks as part of its national tour.
Pope.L uses mayonnaise, peanut butter, Pop-Tarts and other foods in his work, bringing ordinary materials into the realm of art and ensuring that his masterpieces won't ever hang in the homes of rich people. For Map of the World, the artist nailed 4,000 hot dogs into a shape that resembles the United States. "There's a problem of dealing with oxidation," says Pope.L about the smelly material. But he doesn't mind making viewers uncomfortable. "It's all about that, right?"
Pope.L also will be leading a group crawl, which he envisions as a social commentary on homelessness, racism and passivity. Houstonians can join the artist as he moves on his hands and knees from the Fourth Ward to the Enron building. "I wanted to connect Freedmen's Town and Enron because I think that the relationship between the haves and have-nots is interesting," says Pope.L. "No matter how high you get up there, it doesn't take much to be struck lower."