By Abby Wargo
The screen in Norman James Theater read, “White People are Pun” for a brief moment last Wednesday.
The Department of Art and Art History hosted “Differing, Drawn,” a talk by Darby English, a leading scholar on contemporary art. The talk was sponsored by the Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience, the Black Studies Department, the Office of the Provost, and the William James Forum.
Dr. Benjamin Tilghman, assistant professor of art and art history, introduced English as an expert on contemporary African-American art and encouraged the audience to read his scholarly essays or books to learn more about him and his studies.
English’s talk was focused on William Pope.L’s “Skin Set” drawings, which contain pseudo-stereotypes of different “colors” of people, like, “White People are Pun.”
“Art challenges the world and who we are. How do you analyze that?” English said.
English described Pope.L’s drawings as a “clash between the normal and the experiential.” Each contains a saying with the formula “x people are y,” and are usually drawn on a regular sheet of graph paper. There is something unique about all of them, though, because, according to English, “there is no such thing as one drawing.”
Pope.L’s drawings have been in multiple exhibitions, and each time they appear in a gallery, the collection is in a different “semantic spread.”
English described the drawings as having a “potential for meaning everywhere,” and the simultaneity of being and doing that they all have. The collection of drawings comes together in this way to stand apart, he said.
The mathematical properties of the graph paper creates a tight environment in which the drawings exist. The drawings themselves act as drawings of writing, according to English.
He displayed several more “Skin Set” drawings, including “Purple People Are the Color of Blood After Several Days on the Radiator” and “Green People Are My Brother Frank.”
“Green People Are My Brother Frank” is one of the few drawings where the color of the subject and the subject itself are the same. It also has a hair follicle glued onto the paper where Pope.L’s hair fell out while he was working on the drawing. English said that this represents the physicality of the artist within his own piece.
The drawing “Black People Are a Cave” includes similarly non-traditional mediums: blotches of coffee and ketchup.
Pope.L only works on one color set at a time, according to English. He began the project using pulp paper that was 20 inches by 30 inches, but downsized to graph paper to diminish the importance and to increase the intimacy and privacy of the art. There are hundreds of manifestations, but the project lacks order.
“They are their changes,” English said.
The formula “x people are y” creates a subject/object disconnect while using the verb “are” to express a state of being. The statements often do not make literal sense to viewers.
“We detect nonsense, but feel that some sense is being made through these drawings,” he said.
This “nonsense” creates a sense of “fragile wholeness” through the perversion of demographics, which gives a kind of representability to living as a whole, according to English.
Pope.L’s “Skin Set” drawings, English concluded, represent the possibility of human significance without meaning.