Artist Sheila Pepe has been making art since the early ‘90s, and she’s worked on the fringes in more ways than one. Her art is queer and feminist, it engages with the histories and processes of craft (historically considered “lesser than” the fine arts), and is abstract. While today’s art world may value marginalized perspectives more than ever before, it also favors trending aesthetics that skew towards figurative, representational, narrative art. Despite, or perhaps even in spite, of trends and mainstream movements, Pepe has held fast to the tenants of her practice, which often challenge the patriarchy by engaging with architecture and space by fomal means. She takes up space with networks of branching, tectacular fibers—crotched by hand using all sorts of materials, from shoelaces and yarn to nautical line and massive rubber bands.
Pepe’s recent mid-career survey “Hot Mess Formalism” was organized by the Phoenix Art Museum and travelled to the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, the Bemis Center of Contemporary Arts in Omaha, and the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln, Massachusetts. In Art in America, Faye Hirsch wrote about the exhibition: “The ephemerality and shape-shifting propensities of her art may be one reason her thirty-year career is less well known than it should be; the other is its rootedness in craft-based women’s practices.” Pepe’s craft-based practice was recently celebrated in Phaidon’s recently published survey, Vitamin T: Thread and Textiles in Contemporary Art. The book features Put Me Down Gently (2014), “installed at the Institute of Contemporary Art Boston, where threads were suspended from the atrium like vines and attached to the glass elevator so that the work moved with the comings and goings of visitors."
Pepe was also featured in another recently published book by Phaidon: the second edition of Art & Queer Culture, a survey of over 250 works over 130 years of queer art history. The book highlights a 2007 work called Mr. Slit. Co-author Catherine Lord writes, “Made from crocheted and knotted shoelaces, industrial rubber and scraps of hardware, Mr. Slit not only follows a trajectory of resistance and complicity but also sets two signifiers of gender at odds, rendering a giant vagina with heroic masculinity. In balancing irony with seduction, Pepe redefines ‘butch’ in sculptural terms.” She goes on, “Sheila Pepe’s installations feminize high modernism with craft, permeate the materials of industrial fabrication with the secrets of domesticity, and tame the scale of architecture with the intimacies of the human body.”
Here, Artspace’s Loney Abrams speaks with Pepe about growing up in a New Jersey restaurant, working within—and through—the margins, and challenging the heteronormative cannon.
Let's start for the beginning. I know that you were raised in a Catholic Italian-American household in New Jersey. Can you talk a bit about your upbringing and whether creativity was a value instilled early on?
The other thing that's an important frame was that my parents had a deli in Morristown. Because I'm the youngest, I kind of grew up there. My mom went in every Wednesday before I went to school to make meatballs and sauce. It was like my play space, and then also my play was doing small jobs. A really good example of a job that I loved as a six-year-old was doing the dishes in those big industrial sinks they would put huge pots in. My mother would roll my sleeves up around my armpits and put me on an old crate for bottles. (Once upon a time bottles were returnable and they came in metal wooden crates.) So I have a very tactile sensory-filled memory of doing work that was also play, or play that was also work. Of course, as a child I thought I was really helping, but now that I look back I was just being kept busy while being trained how to work. It’s just part of a peasant upbringing: you work as play as a child, and then forever. So I think of that as a foundational part of how I work and what I think work is and what I think play is. It shoots through everything that I do.
Your mother taught you to crochet?
Yep. And her mother was the consummate crochet person; she made really beautiful lace without any patterns. She learned as a really young child how to do that. I didn't get that—I just got the really basic skills.
You didn't return to crochet until you had already started making work as an artist. Do you remember what the catalyst was for revisiting crochet and introducing it to your work?
I was making these objects that had electrical components that would cast a shadow, and then I would draw on the shadow. It's ongoing work that I'm really looking to visit right, but at the time I started it, I would use whatever means I knew how to use. For example, I learned how to do gold leafing when I worked in museums—so I’d use whatever craft maneuver or construction maneuver I knew how to do. When I had access to ceramics I would go in the ceramics studio and make a bunch of parts to use later. A lot of it was collage and pastiche—and this idea that the work can be made out of anything. I understood that. This was in the early ‘90s, so the idea of how signs and signifiers work was very prominent—materially and also process-wise. So: crocheting is different than knitting, and gold leafing is different than painting gold, etc.
I had trained for an amount of time to go into conservation, and I've always been history-obsessed and craft-obsessed. I knew that there was a hierarchy of form, and that most people couldn't tell the different between one kind of hand-making process and another. The bandwidth of making things had just gotten so narrow and supposedly not that important. Kind of like now! [Laughs.] That's what all the craft stuff and all the maker stuff is about: not wanting to lose hand-making.
So much of your work is about how craft is contextualized and looked at, and it’s hyperaware of its relationship to the canon. Craft and crochet are typically associated with domestic and feminine work, which of course further reinforces craft's status as marginalized or “lesser than” fine art. So you're work is inherently political in that it's putting craft in conversation with Modernist values and monumental scales, which historically have been dominated white cis men, primarily. But as this canon now opens up to being…
…Can I just stop you? That was really good! That was perfect! [Laughs.] You get it, yes. I have a feeling I know where this question is going and I'm excited to answer it.
Good! [Laughs.] You're included in both Art & Queer Culture and Vitamin T: Threads and Textiles in Contemporary Art, both recently released by Phaidon. There’s been a lot of conversation surrounding Art & Queer Culture was about what ‘queer art’ means and how that definition changes as society changes. There was a time maybe when simply being queer and making art was in itself radical because it involved carving out space for a subjectivity that wasn't really accommodated during that time. Now, even though there's obviously still a lot of work to be done, the LGBTQ community isn't nearly as excluded from culture as it once was—so is queer art is still inherently subversive or political or marginal as it once was? I think that question could also apply to craft, where craft is starting to become more accepted as part of fine art. Is craft somehow less appealing to you if it’s no longer marginalized?
You're right on. I totally agree with you. There's this piece that I wrote for the Brooklyn Rail and the title is “The Margin You Feel May Not Be Real.” It basically says that when we continually grow as a person we move through margins, we abstain them, willingly. We work to make the margins and the marginal position more available to other people so that we're not alienated from society. People have a voice and they speak it and hopefully others learn. What you have to say about your position is accepted to some degree, and to a great degree that happened through culture and popular culture. I mean, I'm married! So I think we need to be honest with ourselves about where liberation is, and then who else? I could sit in this position of claiming marginality as a craft person, but I’m also making certain crafts more permissible. These things change because we work for the change, and then the question is, what happens after that? Does it just simply turn into a marketing device?
I’ll give you a good example. When Ellen came out it changed everything. Then when Ellen got her talk show it changed everything again. (Because in between she didn't get work for a while, and it was like, fuck, what do you do?) Now she's everybody's little brother or sister and everybody adores her, because she's so way normal, and she looks perfect. When the L Word came out I was so pissed, because it was like, who are all these women? I don't see any lesbians! I still dress the way I did when I was 10. Kids weren't necessarily gendered. They were kids until they were pubescent and other shit happened.
In June, there’s a show opening called “Queer Abstraction,” something that I was very invested in when I was making objects in the Doppelganger Series, and early work that played with object, shadow, and related drawings. Once I got into Vitamin T, I was like, okay good, it's documented, I can go back to the beginning and pick up where I left off. I started crocheting simply because I was angry that successful women were not naming their matriarchal precedents; they were only naming their patriarchal precedents. Then in ‘99 the queer thing was there but the feminist thing was missing. The piece that was featured in the Art & Queer Culture book I made in a context that was really lesbian. But it was an anomaly because I made it for shows where I was speaking to the context of the exhibition in a way that the more abstract. The textiles works that are in Vitamin T speak to the architecture of the space, and therefore the patriarchy of that architecture, and the heteronormativity of that architecture. I talk a lot about the feminist pieces because I think that frame offers connective tissue that a lot of people can understand. I think it's important that when I speak to large audiences that I find common ground. But from the start I had done overt lesbian work between undergrad and grad for a small community of people who knew exactly what I was talking about. When I got to grad school I was less interested in making that clear in the work—I was more interested in showing up as an overt lesbian in public. I felt like that was risky and also got my cultural message across really quickly. Artists talk about what we would now call ‘queer formalism,’ and that there's still a lot of stuff that separates form and content, which is ridiculous bullshit. There's a subject, which is perhaps the images, there's the content that includes the subject but also the materials and the material history, and the processes, which to activate those materials.
There's a way of being queer in the studio and not just lesbian in the studio or a feminist lesbian in the studio, mostly through material and process choices. But queer also can mean what it did during my childhood when it didn't have anything to do with sex—it just meant queer, like you were kind of a weirdo, you didn't want to do anything your peers wanted to do. You didn't want to run around the playground and get chased by boys, you wanted to walk around the playground and pick up things that people dropped out of their pockets, and that's what I did.
By the way, the person who wrote the text about my work in Vitamin T [co-author Catherine Lord] was really great! They really got it, really understood why work got cut out, cut down, and that was a huge part of the practice in that it was really economical for everybody involved.
Your bigger installations are themselves a kind of network, with these tentacle-like, web-like forms—but it seems like your fabrication process produces a kind of network as well. It includes the small-business retailers that supply your materials, and the people that help you crochet, or the people who help install these massive installations. Can you talk about how these networks function and how social relationships create meaning within the work?
It’s really great that you can see those two layers of observation. That makes a lot of sense to me. I don't have a dealer… I mean I have on and off—but the work is sold as a kind of service, a commission. So I'm working directly with the curators and staff, which includes people coordinating folks who are going to add things instructionally, as in Sol Lewitt-like instruction. So I’d have these sudden relationships with people that were really intense for six months to a year. I learned about working with people from watching Nancy Spero and her crew work. She took up so much space, and she and her team would show up and just treat everyone really great. They were generous with their time, and they made the entire experience really enjoyable and rewarding. And then there are other people who show up and treat everyone like their servants. I was like, I'm going to be a co-worker, that's part of my social mission, part of the message of my work. But that social network is hard to sustain. I'm an itinerant artist who doesn't have a big infrastructure around her. I'm growing a little infrastructure… maybe I'll have a bigger one before I die.