Work in “Progress”

PopeL_DieAtorWork in “Progress”

Finally, a depiction of the Maine coast with a penis in it.

And not just “in it,” as in the sense of a penis drawn into an idyll taking place on the Maine coast, dangling from the belt of an illicit Walt Kuhn beach sketch, but genuinely inside it: with this work, the penis has entered the coastline.

In William Pope.L’s collage “DieATOR,” with the rugged bluffs of some Down East corner as backdrop, a semi-soft, beluga-tone penis stands ringed by an accommodating shape, loosely modeled on a pitted legume, its perfectly round and entirely un-vaginal hole circling the member as it nestles into smooth-worn shoreline stones.

This hole also serves as the entryway from the spectator’s world into the drawing. Pope.L’s scene is distant from any sense of the sultry, lustful, or productive. The penis’ folds, creases and bulges, while swollen, are more like those of a clubbed seal than an aroused sexual organ. The erection gone soft becomes a perfect lead-in to Pope.L’s deadpan visual pun: “DieATOR,” the result of reworking and obscuring portions of the word “dictator” (dick + tater).

“DieATOR” is part of The Process Show, the first Portland exhibit of Pope.L’s work in nearly a decade. It shows at Gallery 37-A on Wharf Street this month.

During a preview visit in late February, the show consisted of works like “DieATOR” presented in portfolio sleeves; a trash-can-size cardboard box, sealed in packing tape, that will be opened long enough to ensure its contents have not been damaged, then repacked and left sealed for the duration of the exhibit; a wall of sardine cans; and, what promises to be the piece de persistence, 1,200 potatoes, hand-painted matte-black.

The pile of paper sacks the potatoes came in? According to gallery proprietor Daniel Pepice, Pope.L has asked that they be saved. The day I visited they were stacked next to the piles of painted spuds, inversions of the infamous famine crop whose skin looked alright but whose innards were rotted. What content issues from a black potato? Time will tell.

That it is impossible to say for sure — even one week prior to opening — what the final form of these experiments will be is in keeping with both the goal of the show and the gallery itself. Founded last December by artists and designers Brooke De Lorme and Pepice, Gallery 37-A is at that special moment in the evolution of any creative endeavor: the beginning. There is freshness, momentum, and the feeling of camaraderie necessary to create a unique curatorial program that is rigorous, though still undefined.

Despite having lived, worked and taught in Maine for more than 20 years, Pope.L has not typically been cast as a “Maine artist.” The Process Show is Pope.L’s first exhibition in Portland since his “retro-perspective” show, Eracism, at the Institute of Contemporary Art at Maine College of Art in 2002. It is also the first exhibit in which the visual and performance artist has used materials and themes specifically related to Maine: the sardine, the potato, the coast. (And slain Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba — nobody would ever accuse Pope.L of being predictable.)

Here’s the thing about Pope.L’s art: When you engage with the work, you have no choice but to build your own on-ramp. No approach is too outlandish as long as it climbs the grade.

The pieces in The Process Show date from the late ’80s to the present, but this is not a retrospective. “The selection of work is meant to be impressionistic and playful, not exhaustive,” Pope.L explained in press materials. It “demonstrates a continuing interest in gravity, oxidation, and the body as representation and representation as embodied. In addition, all the work poetically treats the representing of a thing as a force; as a circumstance that compels other circumstances.”

“For example,” he continued, “a penis is a tube of skin containing superstition and mythology … a potato painted black is symbolic of a condition which inevitably shows itself in all of us but may not be apparent upon first impression.”

To make a representation is to create a force that enters and impacts the world. It’s tempting to think of this as an easy thing to do, but nothing could be more consequential than to make and release such a force and to be responsible for its outcomes.

— Chris Thompson

The Process Show shows at Gallery 37-A, 37-A Wharf St., Portland, from March 1-31. Hours: Thurs.-Mon. noon-6 p.m. and by appointment. Opening reception Fri., March 5, from 6 p.m.-10 p.m.

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