Sue Scott Gallery

Sheila Pepe by Ryan Johnson

Ryan Johnson
BOMB Magazine, April 2012

One of Sheila Pepe's choice materials has been the ordinary shoelace, so present in our everyday lives as to be almost invisible. Tying your shoelaces is a ritual shared by most and may hold exceptional significance for an artist based in New York, this great city of the pedestrian. The quick trance-like affair between fingers and lace not only fastens your shoes to your feet but marks the threshold that connects interior and exterior, private and public, the domestic and the social. That is to say, you tie your shoes because you are going out.

Referring to her technique as "improvisational crochet," Pepe loops and knots thousands of laces togther to form sprawling installations as she moves from the personal to the monumental, from the space of her lap into the space of architecture, while somehow never leaving one behind for the other. Crocheting, a skill she learned from her mother, not only forefronts the feminist underpinings of her work but also provides a hands-on, referential conterweight to the soaring abstract formal invention on dispay. The resulting back and forth create a feedback loop that opens up a space rife with allusive potential, actively inviting subjective interpretation.

A prime example of this is Under the F& G, a site-specific installation done at the Visual Art Center of Virginia in 2003. Suspended from D-rings, a mangled canopy of crocheted purple, white, and black shoe-laces dodges and weaves across the entire length of the gallery. At once composed and chaotic, this epic derelict antenna hovers in limbo, seemingly held aloft by the signals it transmits and receives to a from the visitors who surround and confront it. An endless array of allusions springs to mind—shredded fishnet stockings, spider webs, hammocks, neural pathways, nomadic dwellings, acrobatic safety nets, kids' makeshift forts, the flight patterns of pigeons, river systems, air traffic control maps, the electrical grid, and so on. Engaging the body kinesthetically with its enveloping scale and playful sense of space, Under the F & G is also optically charged. Plastic lace tips catch the light like an army of shimmering thorns, while dense sections of Soul Train-purple give way to airy black grids as white laces flash then disappear against the bright walls only to announce their presence elsewhere, more acutely, in shadow.

Complicating the deadpan, Duchampian humor in her choice of shoelaces as an art material is the fact that her grandfather, upon emigrating from Italy to New York, got a job repairing shoes. When considering this family history, as well as her formal conjuring of artists such as Eva Hesse and Faith Wilding, Pepe's installations can be seen as performing a kind of intergenertional embrace, both humble and heroic, minimalist and baroque. Like sombody augmenting their TV antenna with aluminum foil and twisty ties in order to tune to their favorite channel, Pepe's work has the unexpected radiance of something born out of necessity, not merely aesthetics.

—RYAN JOHNSON is an artist based in Gowanus, Brooklyn. He is represented by the Suzanne Geiss Company in New York.