Sue Scott Gallery

Sheila Pepe: Risking Reference, Allowing Allusion

Dinah Ryan
Focus, October 2019

The fundamental unit of Sheila Pepe’s current work is the crocheted stitch, a single loop of a single strand.  The strands are the work’s larger units, primarily shoelaces but also string and industrial rubber bands, which coalesce through a working method Pepe calls “improvisational crochet” into intricate systems based in this one repetitive but accumulative knotted gesture.  The essential humility of the process lies not only in its domestic associations, but also in the way the work proceeds primarily from the space of the body, the lap and the length of the arm from the elbow to the tip of the fingers.  Yet, within it, the “mark” of New York Abstract Expressionism of the 1950s and ‘60s is reiterated, gestures that accrued into the webs of a Jackson Pollock or the brawny calligraphies of a Franz Kline and characterized an incipiently masculine vocabulary that tended to subsume (at least temporarily) those female artists who also practiced it, but which was, itself, subsequently appropriated, resisted, transformed, and transcended.

Pepe’s adroitness at locating her work in various reference points without resorting to open representation or specific allusion results in a kind of multivalent language and function.  The crocheting, standing in for the feminist platform underling Pepe’s work, provides her with an adaptable increment that allows reverberation between abstract, non-objective, and representational wavelengths. She refers to her location in New York City, to its physical aura as well as to its function, as an iconic site of American art.  Simultaneously, she explores the passing down and transformation of skills, a multi-generational legacy that she also examined by curating “My Mother is an Artist,” an exhibition of the work of contemporary artists and their mothers, for the Education Alliance in 2003.  And, she encourages the viewer to engage in a kind of allusive riffing. 

Pepe’s 2003 installation Under the F & G illustrates this point.  It began the way a great river begins, with single strands linking and spreading into a meandering system through chains of crocheted knots.  Its gathering of white, black, and purple shoestrings radiated inward from tidy configurations of D-rings secured at asymmetrical points around the walls of the Hand Workshop Art Center’s two galleries in Richmond, Virginia.  The result was a sweeping, webbed canopy that dripped and dangled overhead, pooling in some places and trailing off in others.

Under the F & G was patterned and patternless, enlarging and unraveling, unitary yet studded with shiny aglets where the shoelaces had been tied off within the webbing.  The installation bristled with these plastic tips so that it seemed beaded, thorny, or covered with spiky hairs as if the whole thing were an epidermis.  A delicate filigree materialized in places, patterns of traditional doilies or afghans, but these patterns were disrupted by dropped stitches and clumping snarls.  Some areas developed three-dimensional configurations like the snares of funnel-web spiders.

Increasingly, Pepe is on the cusp of creating forms in space within the crocheted constructions, as attested by the installation From Delancey and Clinton (2003) at the Contemporary Arts Forum in Santa Barbara, California.  The 20-foot work, occupying a cul-de-sac gallery about 15 feet deep, extended into the space in front of the gallery.  Looking into the gallery, the overlaid nets of black and red shoestrings collapsed into flattened abstraction, but, walking into the space, the massed coagulations hanging in its webbing or running like pipes along certain courses became apparent, contributing to a sense of architectural reference.

One of the most interesting aspects of Pepe’s work is that it is an open secret.  It is a simple combination of elements: the spliced webbing tied tautly to orderly phalanxes of D-rings; the irregular white, black, or gray grids established by gallery walls, ceilings, and floors; the play of substance and shadow under the gallery lights.  Still, something surprising happens because Pepe’s work functions as protean visual metaphor.

Riding the edges of the abstract with its referential interactions, the work is by design capable of summoning subjective interpretations that uncoil from its discursive locality.  Its suggestions-cobwebs, torn fishnet stockings, childhood’s improvised tents and tattered security blankets, the unruly proliferations of suburban sprawl, the pipes and wires that snake through walls, the chains of lights seen from an airplane, the circus tent, the canopy of dark trees, and so on-seem to evolve endlessly.  The artist invites these allusions through a self-reflexive but tacit visual subtext, which considers the family dynamics of her childhood and her development as an artist along a path that recalls and disrupts Modernist restraint and inherits the discursive corporeality of both Eva Hesse and Judy Chicago.

In part, this evocative subtext emerges from one of the work’s specific influences-the elevated tracks of the subway visible from Pepe’s Brooklyn studio.  Collages created from abstract drawings of New York City trestles, girders, grating, fencing, tracks, and ironwork, such as Skyhigh.1 (2003), have in their interlocking spaces a kind of Rube-Goldberg-meets-Stuart-Davis sensibility in which a rudimentary but disrupted perspective suggests the possibility of tracing absurd intersections.  Pepe says that she seeks “an organic configuration that puts the industrial at risk,” but she also celebrates the mechanical and is willing to venture into the kind of urban clowning that Red Grooms played with in Ruckus Manhattan.

Earlier works forecast Pepe’s play of non-representational form and abstract reference, as well her as sense of concurrent internal and external conversations.  In “The Doppelganger Series” from the mid-1990s, bright spotlights illuminated small non-objective sculptures so that the objects cast dramatic, sweeping shadows.  Into these shadows, Pepe drew strange figures, recognizable but idiosyncratic like the images in dreams or delirium.  By using the term “doppelgänger” to title these works, she called attention to the twinning of subject and object, form and reference, the thing and its associations in her work.  Her tolerance for manifold connections in source, formation, and interpretation-particularly through an ingenious, multifarious adaptation of a single gesture-suggests that reference remains a fertile neighborhood.