Sheila Pepe takes a gender-bending approach to process and material while also blurring the distinction between art and craft. From large-scale installations made of crocheted and knitted fiber to small, table-top sculptures composed of found and manipulated objects, her work gives form to a range of conceptual ideas drawn from philosophy, history, art history, and religion and filtered through personal experience. Pepe’s own narrative often plays a role in unraveling the meaning of her works. She defines herself as a multiplicity of identities—Italian-American, Catholic, white, lesbian, woman—and she holds strong beliefs, including that her fiber work—especially the act of crocheting—represents a sustained elevation of home craft. Mapping and preserving a lesbian décor from a history that has touched her personally and culturally, her work not only pays homage to the feminist artists and activists who preceded her—women who made their mark by taking up or occupying male-dominated space—it also makes a powerful contribution to that lineage.
Pepe calls her fiber work “subversive stitching.” She is interested in how a task, a process, and a material are gendered. When she began making art over 30 years ago, she recalls, “There was a need to re-animate a feminist dialogue and address the hierarchy of forms. [I was making] craft and high Modernist art at [the same] time, and it was taking up space.”1 In all of her work, Pepe advocates for the recalibration of the art historical canon, opening it to craft practices, as well as demonstrably queer work.
Titles often provide the first clue to Pepe’s thinking and the multiple meanings embedded in her work. A self-proclaimed logophile and a consummate wordsmith, she chooses her words carefully. Common Sense: MAD (2021), one of her most provocative works, is a case in point. Created for “Tabernacles for Trying Times,” a joint exhibition with her wife, painter Carrie Moyer, at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, this site-specific installation presents a space to explore at close hand in a kind of tent of meeting. As we step inside Pepe’s “commons,” familiar materials stimulate the innate sense that we share common understanding with others.
Common Sense: MAD is both elaborate and honest, made of densely crocheted and knitted purple, blue, and gold yarn. Its looped, web-like strands hang and toggle and pull across the ceiling and floor at points of contact. Riveted together in places, the loops and more tightly held masses expand with tension and fall languidly into open space and onto the floor like lines in a three-dimensional drawing. As in many previous works, Pepe also incorporates seating—in this case, a set of custom-made stools that encourage visitors to get comfortable and stay for a while. This direct connection with viewers drives many of Pepe’s installations, including Parlor for the People (2020), a second site-specific work created for MAD in collaboration with Moyer, which offers a communal, quasi-domestic space, open to all. In Common Sense, interaction, not only with others, but also with the work itself, is central. Along with yarn, rope, shoelaces, and hardware, “audience participation” is listed among the materials on the wall label.
Pepe’s constructed social space issues a call to creative action. Visitors not only sit or stand inside the loops of hand-sculpted yarn, they are also invited to engage in sessions of “communal Pepe’s constructed social space issues a call to creative action. Visitors not only sit or stand inside the loops of hand-sculpted yarn, they are also invited to engage in sessions of “communal crocheting,” taking Common Sense apart to create new handmade strands or forms using the unraveled yarn. By pulling, untying, and cutting the strands, the original, complex web will eventually be reduced to its essence, with only the structural black cords holding things together left in place. Pepe thinks of the final, reduced form as an “underlying structural drawing,” both “randomly ornamental” and inspired by the Abstract Expressionist paintings of Franz Kline.
There are, in truth, many sources for the aesthetic references in Pepe’s fiber installations. The predominant web and chain form pays homage to the women activists who staged two major protests: the Seneca Peace Encampment for Justice and Peace (1983–94) in New York State and Embrace the Base at the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp (1981–2000) in England. In these long-term actions, women came “out of the home” to take over space normally controlled by men. Participants joined hands around barriers, linked their bodies into chains, and wove entangling webs out of yarn in feminist response to the problems of “male space,” protesting inequality, nuclear proliferation, and social injustices. They also made posters and quilts that incorporated a spider’s web form as a symbol of resilience and fragility. Pepe calls Common Sense a “‘Wicca web’ made as a way to preserve that culture” and give voice to this nearly forgotten history.
Much of Pepe’s work is an open set, a game to be played, and Common Sense is no exception. For the final act in its performance, when the work is completely unraveled, visitors will be given the opportunity to make something completely new out of the yarn as Pepe guides both seasoned crocheters and neophytes in an act of communal crocheting. With this artist-as-teacher action, Pepe honors her artist-mother, who taught her to knit and crochet. Pepe references Ludwig Wittgenstein’s theory of “family resemblance” as a conceptual framework throughout her installations and sculptures. In this construct, to make “communal meaning,” visitors consider how things are alike and how they are different. It’s a process of productive thinking that helps us to understand that our respective definitions of each other, and Pepe references Ludwig Wittgenstein’s theory of “family resemblance” as a conceptual framework throughout her installations and sculptures. In this construct, to make “communal meaning,” visitors consider how things are alike and how they are different. It’s a process of productive thinking that helps us to understand that our respective definitions of each other, and of things, don’t exactly fit into neat, singular compartments. We have a familial human lineage, but we are also different from those who came before. Similarly, we engage in the family resemblance game with Pepe’s work when we encounter stitches or an array of fibers that share certain qualities but are not exactly alike. We are invited to consider which strands connect to which, what parts are similar or different based on construction or material or color. It’s an intersectional way of seeing an artwork, Pepe believes, and entirely compatible with—or reflective of—a lesbian and feminist sensibility.
The transmission of handwork skills from mother to daughter is another expression of the family resemblance concept, and Common Sense extends that transmission to visitors. By sharing the process of making, unmaking, and re-making, Pepe deputizes the visitor as “maker” in the museum space. This generous, unselfish act encourages agency and a new commonality, a shared sensibility held in common between artist and viewer, between viewer and viewer—all now identified as makers. In her commitment to letting her work disappear over time and be made anew by others, Pepe gives a valuable gift to those who share the experience. The trajectory of Common Sense could be described as an expression of the life cycle—there is no final end, just the potential for continual rebirth through shared effort and vision. As she explains: “Things can remain material—handmade and by some machines—and those things can live forever or fail as material given the context and its mutable situation. It is not a fixed thing, neither is a museum.” Pepe’s wall works demonstrate the same monumental feats of knitting, crocheting, knotting, and tying as her site-specific installations. These abstractions are remarkable for their loosely patterned, textured surfaces and fields of color. Each piece takes hundreds of hours to make and requires continuous repetitive stitching. Most knitters and crocheters count their stitches, often following a pattern that determines the number of stitches per row and the number of rows. Pepe doesn’t count. Instead, she performs a kind of improvisational crochet, playing the notes of one colored yarn for a time before moving on to another phrase or expression.
Because Pepe uses materials closely associated with the domestic sphere, the viewer can’t help but see familiar objects in her fiber forms, including blankets, sweaters, doilies, and rugs. But Pepe claims that they have a greater relationship with abstract painting. As Carrie Moyer has explained, “For people like us who have been historically excluded from the canon, what we bring to a topic like abstraction is our personal experience, which transforms canonical ideas about art or how abstraction is used. If I am making an abstract painting, it’s queer abstraction automatically.”2
In Just this Corner (for 2020) (2021), Pepe renders phrases of abstract form and color that coalesce in a map of her art-making process. Viewers decode the forms through their personal and political perspectives. The abstract topography may represent an aerial view of the American landscape or suggest female forms, with crocheted yarn signifying pathways and color blocks becoming luminous fields. Behind pinwheel-like forms, glimpses of striped orange fabric give the piece significant physicality and remind us that the work coexists in two- and three-dimensional space.
In other works, the “personal is political” finds expression in materials that present as both feminine and masculine. Pepe uses hard metal chains and chainmail, along with rope and yarn, to great effect in 91 BCE Redux (2020), which reads as a wall work and as an installation. She seems to love the formal qualities of chainmail as much as its association with body armor. The title once again offers a key to her intent; here, Pepe conflates recent U.S. immigration policy and attitudes toward immigrants with a violent period in Roman history when other cities and tribes on the Italian peninsula fought for citizenship in the Republic.
Unfolding at large scale, 91 BCE Redux exudes a sense of strife and foreboding, articulated through tangled, gnarly webs that hang threateningly from skeins of black and blue rope coming off the ceiling and wall. Who is admitted, and who is left out? A metal chain running horizontally across the wall enhances the tension while providing a support for a chainmail form that vaguely resembles a map of the United States hung out to dry. Chainmail, normally associated with strength, power, and protection, is here reduced to a limp, sagging form.
Among many art historical references, Pepe notes that “there is always Duchamp.” She repurposes recognizable, ready-made materials in her fiber works and uses everyday found objects in “Votive Moderns: Tabletop Things,” a series of small sculptures that she has been making for 25 years. Pepe alludes to or uses a vernacular ready-made object with each new “thing” forged from handmade, found, or industrial materials. We recognize the objects, but their amalgamation presents another puzzle to unravel. Raised in a Catholic home populated with small religious figurines and sculptures on tabletops, Pepe creates unique offerings to Modernism in these works, which are stripped of any religious iconography or reference to function.
In these works too, Pepe’s personal narrative comes into play. Thing from “Frank’s Deli” (from the series “Votive Moderns: Tabletop Things“) (2000) was inspired by her family’s store in New Jersey, where she grew up working behind the counter. She captures the memory of that time with familiar (and familial) objects—a white, house-like building punctuated by forms created from cast plastic detritus from her home and studio. One cylindrical piece thrusts through the roof of the building, as if fallen from space, while another cone-like form with a nipple tip pops out of the other side.
Intersectionality permeates One Thing (2014), another “Votive Modern.” A small, stuffed linen sack is divided into three sections by two leather shoelaces, which demarcate a “body.” The form stands like an armless ancient sculpture on a bronze pedestal, but indeterminately phallic or feminine. It could be one thing or the other, or both.
Pepe’s interest in history, culture, and religion, intersecting with personal narrative, finds its fullest expression in “American Bardo,” a new series of sculptures resembling contemporary church kneelers. Unlike many of her works, however, these are not participatory; rather than inviting physical contact, they ask viewers to contemplate them like traditional sculpture. In this series, Pepe broadens her fascination with religious practice to Tibetan Buddhism, finding particular inspiration in the concept of the “bardo,” the liminal space where the soul stays after death while awaiting reincarnation. She is interested in the fact that, even in the “in between,” the soul can still attain enlightenment. For her, this state is akin to how Common Sense and other interactive works reside in between creation, destruction, and re-creation—it is within the interstitial space where meaning is made. Speaking of the “American Bardo” works, Pepe has said: “Two things that I know right now are that, first, this is a work made to draw empathy from myself for those who would have their lives governed by religion, and secondly, that this is a piece of furniture extremely familiar to some and extremely foreign to others, and by viewers projecting themselves into the space, they either recall a very comforting, very restful and humble location of thought or reflection, or they look at it as a very alien and ‘cultural other.’ I think those two opposites are very much how we are living right now and something I would like to call into the room as a standing question.”3
In American Bardo 2.0 (2021), Pepe juxtaposes Eastern and Western iconography and material culture. She sourced a Chinese export table (c. 1840) and inverted it so that its artist-bejeweled legs stick up to support an armrest covered in Scottish tartan. The upholstered base is covered by a common American horse blanket, crudely stitched together, with a diamond-shaped seal or crest embroidered at the center. Here, Pepe’s “subversive stitch” brings together the symbol of the British East India Company and the American beaver, the mascot of the Astor family. Pepe notes that the Astors made their fortune not only in the fur trade and real estate, but also by smuggling opium into China. The family resemblance game is at work again in this political, religious, economic, and material collision of East and West. We are charged with making the connections between trade in objects, currency, and religious beliefs, asked to see what these disparate objects and symbols have in common and what their confluence tells us. This is the path to enlightenment or understanding. This is how we make meaning.
In all of Pepe’s sculptures and installations, the personal is political. Her biography is intrinsically linked to her practice and forms. An intellectual who gives expression to ideas through her hands, Pepe questions history, religion, and the patriarchal hierarchy—in the art world and in society at large. Her work invites us to take our place in the social spaces she has created for us (and allows us to remake), to engage in dialogue, to contemplate, and to make meaning.
“Tabernacles for Trying Times,” Sheila Pepe’s two-person show with Carrie Moyer, is on view at MAD in New York through February 13, 2022.
1 All quotations unless otherwise noted are from an interview with the artist, July 2021.
2 Jaime DeSimone, Carrie Moyer and Sheila Pepe: Tabernacles for Trying Times (Portland Museum of Art, 2020): p. 29.
3 Quoted from “A Closer Look at the Art of Sheila Pepe,” <https://vimeo.com/421528366>.