“When Pope.L shakes his head he makes drawings that keep him from laugh-crying to death,” writes curator Helen Molesworth of William Pope.L‘s “Skin Set Drawings.” An ongoing series begun by the multidisciplinary artist two decades ago, the drawings are made using readily available materials—graph paper, markers, ballpoint pen, correction fluid, etc.—and consist of declarative statements about people of various colors (white, black, orange, green, and so on), offering incisive commentary on the absurdity of language about color and race. In commemoration of the Walker’s recent acquisition of a series of “Skin Set” drawings, now on view in the exhibition Less Than One, we invited Minneapolis-based poet, essayist, and educator Erin Sharkey to share her creative response to works in the series.
A Blizzard of Claims
The message looks bold. A direct statement. No modifiers like: sometimes or maybe. A straightforward statement that sounds so close to something you have always heard you might miss that something is amiss.
But you look really closely, you get up close and break the column of light in front of White People are the Camel and its Needle (2001), and you see marks Pope.L made on its face. Between the bold red letters, in small script is this short musing:
“write write write something I can buy. then write it out and write it again. A blizzard of claims like snowfall coating the trees in the park after the lynching”
And there are small cartoon bones. The only thing here with strong singular meaning. Bones are bones whether they be food or a reminder. Or a warning.
And snow, clean white snow, on every surface. So quiet and still. What is snow for? To remind us of resistance to the ground? To record footsteps, coming and going? To melt?
Like any night anywhere, in his little drawing, a little house with a fire in its little fireplace, smoke spilling out of its chimney. They are inside. Warm and resting from the activities of the day. Be it farming or factory work or stringing up a black man by his neck.
Grey people are the Guanaco and the Button Hole
When your mother is gauze and your father a raven, you learn very early you are either sackcloth or ash. Evidence of sacrifice. Storm clouds or an old woman’s hair.
Color without color, undied, undyed.
A cloud on the ground. A heavy buoyancy.
The first math equation I learned=
A black body, a perfect closet for light + a white back turned away.
Calculation. Is there a better warning that race is replica than that it combines?
1+1= alone in this world.
Look here at all that we have built—an industry of industries, a conveyer belt for conveyer belts. All we have added is lack, and simplified by making all of this more complicated. Smoke stacks.
Black can be made.
White cannot be made, it is empty.
Black, full. Black is only everything but what it is not.
Black is pigment
They want no meaning.
Grey is no color—only want. And certainly it is not a clear thing. Transparent, clean, sterile. Oh god no, not that. Nothing pulls the curtain back on a binary like being both inverses or neither.
There is no word for the opposite of a metaphor. Literally.
I have learned uncertainty. Color is a senseless gauge. How can color be trusted anyway? It changes depending on weather. It changes when another leans in close and kisses its ear. When I was a little girl, I couldn’t understand how one could trust that another person saw the same thing as they did. Ask a friend to draw what they see. They will see what they see and say it’s what you saw.
Picked the prettiest yellow flower in the neighbor’s garden. How can you even talk about it? And trust that when you compared the flower to the brightest yellow yolk or the creamiest stick of butter or the golden light of the moon that they really remember? Or that they make the same shapes on their memory?
A camel, no reserve, somehow crossed the salty ocean with no hump. So quick, her baby was born running before its first breath, air as thin as thread. Hang on dear life.
She was a whale. Not a devil, not a school bus. Simply an extremist wearing a cape of neutrality.
My Heart’s Envy is Violet
On a journey on a wide rough sea, insisted by waves towards the end of the spectrum by westerlies, anti-trades, that drag the path of hurricanes—our boatswain, with his tool belt of metal darners, pauses to look out over the stern’s regrets, shrinking at the furthest point as it makes itself smaller and smaller like a scolded child.
I’ve asked you to join on this voyage on this boat of hands, fingers splayed under the surface, reaching down for a hand reaching up in return. Asked that you compound the pigments, use a swirling brush; count each round until you reach the age of a stone at the deepest reach of the ocean’s floor who has never felt sunlit on its face.
Newton calculated the desire for the color of beautyberries, free for no one insisted that they be red or blue, or rather understood how far 380 nanometers away is the troposphere. The beads of the callicarpa bush—metallic berries—squished under feet, can be used to make a fermented goblet to sustain you on your journey.
You know that we aren’t really on a ship on a journey on a wavelength towards a perfect color that no one would force to be what it is not. We are just sitting here in chairs, or maybe you are reclined in some other way—me writing, you listening with your eyes and your tender hands.
You cannot deny the lure of red with its ordered rituals, its occasional sweets, or the pull of blue’s honest emotion, and you know that to find it is to perhaps balance on the lonesome point alone. No history shared with your conceivers. And from this acme even if you stretch as far as your arms will reach, you cannot hold blood in one hand, water in the other.
I wont convince you, though I have tried, you will agree, mightily, that the pursuit is feckless for colors don’t exist. They are only light, like so many bouncing balls. And that a man sits at a great wide table, lifts up each thing presented to him, spins it once in his hands, hums a great deal, and calls it energy or clean, mystery or nobility.
My heart wants violet. Don’t tell me it’s not its own glorious thing.