blackbird spring 2002 vol.1 no. 1



Under the F & G

Sheila Pepe makes sprawling web-like installations that playfully, elegantly, and at times eerily transform the spaces they inhabit. Combining aspects of drawing, painting, sculpture, and craft, her hybrid creations are assembled from mundane, decidedly non-art materials that could be characterized as domestic flotsam scavenged from the kitchen drawer. "You know that drawer," Pepe says. "It's the one in the kitchen with all the stuff, the little twist ties for the bread, rubber bands, shoelaces, pieces of string, a hammer." Crocheting, her method of fabrication, reinforces this point of origin in the home.

Though employed for a singular purpose, Pepe's adoption of a traditional needle-working technique derives from her mother's early instructions. The legacy she has inherited from her Italian-American family informs her art in other ways. Making use of a variety of pliable materials like cotton cord and rubber bands, Pepe associates the shoelaces she currently prefers with her paternal grandfather and the shoe-repair shops, now gone, that he once operated with her DeSalvio uncles in Brooklyn and Manhattan. The single shoelace appearing in an earlier sculpture has subsequently given way to the innumerable laces she requires for each labor-intensive installation. In terms of process and materials, her work partakes of excessive repetition. Pepe's immersion in this endeavor suggests, among other possibilities, an extended meditation on her identification with familial places and people who no longer exist.

Pepe uses the term "improvisational crochet" to describe her working process. Linking the domestic realm to a quality closely identified with the recent history of artistic invention, this unexpected wedding of contrary words and ideas evokes the diverse range of interests shaping her aesthetic. Pepe has drawn inspiration from the gestural styles of painters Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline as well as the innovations of sculptors Eva Hesse and Judy Chicago. She compares her formative encounters with Hesse's enigmatic, richly allusive abstract sculpture, Hang Up (1966)—an experience as confounding as it was compelling—and Chicago's iconic feminist installation, The Dinner Party (1974-79), which she found readily comprehensible. "Ever since," the artist notes, "my work has been a negotiation between those two poles."

With her move to New York City from Boston three years ago, Pepe has produced numerous drawings based on her direct observation of her immediate surroundings. "It seemed like a silly activity," she recalls, "but from the moment I got here, it was something I felt compelled to do." The importance she accords this sphere of investigation is reflected in the title of her new installation, Under the F & G, which refers to the location of her studio beneath the elevated tracks of the F & G trains in Brooklyn, underscoring the role this environment has played in the recent evolution of her imagery.

Pepe's representational sketches have, in turn, led to more abstract versions. In the five recent NY Drawings included in this exhibition, animated networks of interlocking lines and shapes evoke the angle irons of overhead trestles and other details of this industrial urban setting. Pieced together from multiple fragments, these exuberant compositions grow through accumulation, in ways similar to the three-dimensional installations they ultimately help inspire. Although Pepe's process of distillation yields distinctly different results, it recalls earlier modes of modernist abstraction, such as that used by painter John Marin (1870-1953) to convey his uniquely expressive visions of the New York cityscape. Like her predecessor, Pepe is intent upon translating her impressions into visual terms that will communicate something essential about her world.

When Pepe employs color, it is often an intuitive choice that also summons personal associations. For example, the colors of the crocheted Woolworth's yarn selected for Josephine (2000), an installation inspired by and named after her mother, reminded the artist of an afghan she would have found in the den of her childhood home. The deep purple shoelaces of this installation, used in combination with black and white laces like vibrant strokes of paint, similarly shade her imagery with layers of association. As suggested by an early working title for the piece, "Feminism, Funk, and Funerals," Pepe associates this color with specific cultural frameworks, and consequently with the class distinctions they contain, as well as with the recent prevalence in New York City of purple funereal bunting. Evocative of the color of ecclesiastical vestments worn during Lent, it also relates to her memories of growing up in the Catholic Church.

Pepe's conception of an installation is significantly shaped by her consideration of the space in which it will finally appear, and she takes into account both the social construction and the physical reality of the site. Recalling her initial visit to the Hand Workshop Art Center last spring, she observes, "The way it functions as an art center seems in certain respects so incredibly direct and local." This response, she notes, prompted an assessment of how those two adjectives might apply to her own work. "It's such an unusual space, with architectural idiosyncrasies like a drop ceiling and I-beams that I would never in a million years want to ignore," Pepe continues. "Because the space seems so condensed to me, I want to try to come out of the architecture, which suggests an organic configuration that puts the industrial at risk."

For Pepe, working within a given set of parameters often generates an overriding determinant. In Come Fly with Me (2002), an installation at the Weatherspoon Art Museum, her focus on horizontal elements resulted in a complex assemblage resembling an enormous, swooping hammock. Typically, she also incorporates vistas where the installation coalesces into a two-dimensional abstract image. "I want to establish a vantage point with some physical autonomy in the front gallery, where the viewer can have a picture," she says, referring to her Hand Workshop project. "And then, a migration going into the second gallery, which really envelops that space, so that the more adventurous viewer can go inside of the piece quite literally." These preliminary thoughts on orchestrating image and space within the context of a specific site put into play Pepe's exploratory notion of an installation as "a kind of dismantling - taking things apart, exploding a viewpoint." Her success in doing so engenders fantastic environments in which viewers, figuratively speaking, can easily lose themselves.

"My overarching agenda is the belief that if this kid from Jersey could visit the Museum of Modern Art," she concludes, referring to herself, "and find this really pleasurable aesthetic space, having learned enough framework to allow that to happen, then everybody can." While Pepe has previously indicated that the process of interpretation ultimately depends on each individual's experience of the work, she does have a particular goal in mind: "I'm aware that entering the installation may be disorienting and consequently uncomfortable, but hopefully it's a gentle coaxing that affords the viewer a kind of sensual pleasure."  

Sheila Pepe's Under the F & G showed at the Hand Workshop Art Center in Richmond, Virginia, from January 17 to March 9, 2003.