Pope.L created this “painting” by covering a newspaper image of a young Malcolm X with peanut butter. He has used this “brown goo,” as he calls it—and, elsewhere, its symbolic opposite, mayonnaise (“white goo”)—to transform the experience of growing up poor and black into works of searing critique and dark humor. “Mayonnaise and peanut butter, those ‘cheap’ foods we ate as kids… . Once used, they don’t stay in their original form: they change, they oxidize… . Which leads to an interesting query: What is brownness as opposed to whiteness?”
Gallery label from “Collection 1940s—1970s”, 2019
In Mal Content, from a body of work the artist refers to as Proto-Skin Sets, a small newspaper image of a young Malcolm X peeks out from behind a thick impasto of peanut butter. This simple, striking combination of portrait and material embodies multiple political and personal references. The wordplay of the title evokes both the civil rights leader’s name and his profound frustration with American society, while the choice to portray the radical icon at an early age humanizes him. Meanwhile, the invitingly tactile peanut butter that frames the image suggests a shade of skin and refers to the cheap, ubiquitous food of the artist’s childhood.
In addition to peanut butter, which Pope.L has termed “brown goo,” the artist has employed mayonnaise (“white goo”) in his works. These signifiers of race allow him to explore the topic “in a more playful, strange, and open-ended way,” he has said. The bodily and time-based connotations of the organic substance—appetite, sustenance, duration, and decay—link Mal Content to Pope.L’s performance-based work. From the “crawls” of the 1990s, in which he dragged himself along city streets to test the precarious social dynamics of urban spaces, to his Black Factory (2004–09)—a nomadic, delivery-truck laboratory that engaged visitors around the question of “blackness”—Pope.L’s work confronts the vexed realities of race, class, and masculinity in the United States.
Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)