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The Bad Air Smelled of Roses: Artist Carl Pope Challenges Viewer Perceptions in CMA Installation

By Emily J. Peters, Curator of Prints and Drawings

Installation view: The Bad Air Smelled of Roses, 2004–ongoing. Carl Pope Jr. (American, b. 1961). Letterpress poster; 48.3 x 35.6 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Mr. and Mrs. Richard W. Whitehill Art Purchase Endowment Fund and gift of David Lusenhop in honor of the artist, 2018.33.32

“The most important installation in the US right now.” — Hyperallergic

When discussing the media and message of his word-based monumental letterpress poster installation, The Bad Air Smelled of Roses, the artist Carl Pope Jr. refers to the early-twentieth-century “father of public relations” Edward Bernays. Bernays’s promotion of the potential for media and propaganda to sway public opinion spawned influential media campaigns for clients ranging from the United States war department to Ivory soap.

Installation view: The Bad Air Smelled of Roses, 2004–ongoing. Carl Pope Jr. (American, b. 1961). Letterpress poster; 48.3 x 35.6 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Mr. and Mrs. Richard W. Whitehill Art Purchase Endowment Fund and gift of David Lusenhop in honor of the artist, 2018.33.32

The installation of 102 posters, carefully arranged by the artist, is on view at the CMA as part of the exhibition Who RU2 Day: Mass Media and the Fine Art Print. The display draws on Bernays’s tactics to unlock mass media’s potential to create social change.

Installation view: The Bad Air Smelled of Roses, 2004–ongoing. Carl Pope Jr. (American, b. 1961). Letterpress poster; 48.3 x 35.6 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Mr. and Mrs. Richard W. Whitehill Art Purchase Endowment Fund and gift of David Lusenhop in honor of the artist, 2018.33.32

At the same time, the work reveals the ways in which mass media can contribute to divisions and factions within contemporary American culture. With strong relevance to our current media moment, Pope’s installation of textual sound bites invites viewers to evaluate their relationships with the many forms of mass media they encounter.

In a recent interview at the CMA, Pope described The Bad Air Smelled of Roses as an “ongoing, endless writing project, an Afrofuturist project that is a never-ending essay about . . . blackness and its correspondences in American culture and in nature.” Afrofuturism is a cultural aesthetic that combines science fiction, history, and fantasy to explore the African American experience; one of its aims is to connect those from the black diaspora with their forgotten African ancestry. Excerpts from the interview are captured in a video of the artist installing his work at the CMA, seen below.

Video courtesy Cleveland Museum of Art.

The efficacy of Pope’s project hinges on two things: his careful choice of words, and the medium he deploys. The letterpress posters, arranged thoughtfully in undulating rows across an entire gallery wall, pull language from sources ranging from modern black literature, René Descartes, jazz and rap music, Sigmund Freud, Malcolm X, Dolly Parton, movie dialogue from Casablanca and The Matrix, a TV commercial for bubble bath, and personal conversations.

The Bad Air Smelled of Roses: Mother, 2004-ongoing. Carl Pope Jr. (American, b. 1961), printed by the artist at York Show Print, York, Alabama Letterpress poster, Sheet: 48.3 x 35.6 cm (19 x 14 in.). Mr. and Mrs. Richard W. Whitehill Art Purchase Endowment Fund and gift of David Lusenhop in honor of the artist 2018.33.57

Pope uses words and phrases in ways that are at times humorous, caustic, provocative, and sad. The fonts, colors, and graphic layouts of each poster add another layer of meaning to their words. For example, on the poster Mother, the word mother sits at the bottom of the sheet, weighed down by the gray mass of color above it, conveying a cultural or psychological burden attached to the word.

Left: The Bad Air Smelled of Roses: Black is Black and You Can’t Change That, 2004-ongoing. Carl Pope Jr. (American, b. 1961), printed by Hatch Show Print, Nashville, TN. Letterpress poster, 55.9 x 35.6 cm (22 x 14 in.). Mr. and Mrs. Richard W. Whitehill Art Purchase Endowment Fund and gift of David Lusenhop in honor of the artist 2018.33.26; Middle: The Bad Air Smelled of Roses: Rib Tip Dinner 7PM, 2004-ongoing. Carl Pope Jr. (American, b. 1961), printed by the artist at York Show Print, York, Alabama. Letterpress poster, Sheet: 48.3 x 35.6 cm (19 x 14 in.). Mr. and Mrs. Richard W. Whitehill Art Purchase Endowment Fund and gift of David Lusenhop in honor of the artist 2018.33.39; Right: The Bad Air Smelled of Roses: Confuse the Issues Discount the Claims Focus on a Small Point and Forget the Rest!, 2004-ongoing. Carl Pope Jr. (American, b. 1961), printed by Tribune Showprint. Letterpress poster, Sheet: 55.9 x 35.6 cm (22 x 14 in.). Mr. and Mrs. Richard W. Whitehill Art Purchase Endowment Fund and gift of David Lusenhop in honor of the artist 2018.33.3

Pope’s designs also recall different styles and eras, from Old West “Wanted” signs to psychedelic band posters, restaurant advertisements, or solicitations staked along the side of an exit ramp. Each poster operates on its own terms but also in relationship to every other in a way that Pope intends to be intertextual so that a plethora of conflictual and consensual voices overwhelm the viewer.

Pope keeps the realm of advertising in mind when he carefully crafts each phrase, quote, or thought. He describes the potency of language in the example of a billboard: “those eight words [on a billboard] are crafted so in a short, concise sentence they address your deepest fears, your most enduring thoughts, all of your desires.”

The Bad Air Smelled of Roses: African Americans, Negroes, Blacks, And Post-Blacks All Agree: The Use of the “A” Instead of the “ER” Changes Everything!, 2004-ongoing. Carl Pope Jr. (American, b. 1961), printed by Tribune Showprint. Letterpress poster, Sheet: 55.9 x 35.6 cm (22 x 14 in.). Mr. and Mrs. Richard W. Whitehill Art Purchase Endowment Fund and gift of David Lusenhop in honor of the artist 2018.33.8

Pope skillfully redeploys advertising phrasing. For example, the poster African Americans, Negroes, Blacks, And Post-Blacks All Agree: The Use of the “A” Instead of the “ER” Changes Everything! employs a recognizable ad idiom as if to promote a household cleanser or medical product endorsed by respected professionals. In fact, the issue at hand is an ongoing debate, not easily distilled, about a racist label drenched in oppression and slavery. The efficacy of the advertisement for Pope lies in its ability to suggest many different narratives depending on the experience a viewer brings to it. In juxtaposing the familiar with the unexpected, Pope hopes to jolt the viewer from complacency, to point to new possibilities, and to experience what he calls the “natural, expansive realm of Blackness.”

For Pope, Blackness is not just a racial category but also a state of the unknown, an antidote to light, a space between the past and the future. One important source for Pope’s concept of Blackness derives from the Afrofuturist musician and composer Sun Ra, whose words appear on several posters, including In Their Minds. The Unknown Is Great! It’s Like the Darkness.

The Bad Air Smelled of Roses: In Their Minds. The Unknown IS Great! It’s Like the Darkness., 2004-ongoing. Carl Pope Jr. (American, b. 1961), printed by the artist at York Show Print, York, Alabama. Letterpress poster, 48.3 x 35.6 cm (19 x 14 in.). Mr. and Mrs. Richard W. Whitehill Art Purchase Endowment Fund and gift of David Lusenhop in honor of the artist 2018.33.86

Stapled to the wall like notices on the street, the posters in the installation also confront the exclusivity of the fine art gallery. Indeed, Pope occasionally pokes fun at the hallowed ground of the blue-chip New York art gallery.

The Bad Air Smelled of Roses: Add 2 Cups of Warhol and a Stick of Nauman and Serve!, 2004-ongoing. Carl Pope Jr. (American, b. 1961). Letterpress poster, Sheet: 68.6 x 40.6 cm (27 x 16 in.). Mr. and Mrs. Richard W. Whitehill Art Purchase Endowment Fund and gift of David Lusenhop in honor of the artist 2018.33.107

Pope’s use of letterpress links The Bad Air Smelled of Roses to ephemeral printed materials such as protest posters, flyers, or picket signs. He chose letterpress for its history as a medium used to circulate images and information to broad audiences. Advertisements, protest posters, and other such media function best when they reduce individuals to their perceived differences and similarities. Pope skillfully navigates this territory.

The Bad Air Smelled of Roses: Echo the Fiction of My Identity, 2004-onoing. Carl Pope Jr. (American, b. 1961), printed by Tribune Showprint. Letterpress poster, Sheet: 55.9 x 35.6 cm (22 x 14 in.). Mr. and Mrs. Richard W. Whitehill Art Purchase Endowment Fund and gift of David Lusenhop in honor of the artist 2018.33.13

The poster Echo the Fiction of My Identity, for example, could call to mind the world of social media, where individuals can easily reinforce their own ideology by choosing what groups to join or follow. While Pope is drawn to the possibility for certain types of media to activate social change and personal transformation, his use of advertising language and format purposely operates in the realm first created by Bernays, within which readers would do well to question the speaker and his motives. Pope’s sophisticated interplay of meaning and form is never without humor, including when the artist readily laughs at himself.

The Bad Air Smelled of Roses: Another Gripping Saga of the Difficult and Moody Artist! (Yawn), 2004-ongoing. Carl Pope Jr. (American, b. 1961). Letterpress poster, Sheet: 68.6 x 40.6 cm (27 x 16 in.). Mr. and Mrs. Richard W. Whitehill Art Purchase Endowment Fund and gift of David Lusenhop in honor of the artist 2018.33.108

Ultimately, each person’s relationship to Pope’s monumental installation will vary according to the experiences and associations he or she brings to it, which is Pope’s intention. He strives to challenge the viewers of The Bad Air Smelled of Roses to look beyond mainstream preconceptions and “outside of the burdensome social conventions and narratives to which we subscribe.”

Carl Pope Jr.’s The Bad Air Smelled of Roses is on view in the exhibition WHO RU2 DAY: Mass Media and the Fine Art Print in the CMA’s James and Hanna Bartlett Prints and Drawings Gallery through March 24, 2019.

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