Sheila Pepe, installation view of “Sheila Pepe: Hot Mess Formalism,” 2018. Photo: Clements Photography and Design, Boston

Sheila Pepe

Lincoln, Massachusetts

deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum

The title of Sheila Pepe’s retrospective, “Hot Mess Formalism,” messes with us right from the start. “Formalism” refers to the purely sensory aspects of a work, disregarding meaning, politics, historical context, and the artist’s biography. Such a title must come from sheer contrariness, for Pepe’s work is overtly political, bombing the viewer with messages drawn from her experience and the historical context of feminism. Pepe has made a career of upsetting conventions, norms, and expectations. Raised in Brooklyn in an Italian Catholic family, she identified as a lesbian early in the feminist movement. She later rejected the norms and expectations of lesbian culture, characterizing herself and her work simply as “other.”

In many cases, her works are hard to deal with formally. The “Different Things” and “Votives” are sassy handmade products of whim that, from another hand, might not make it into a community crafts show. Many of them have phallic connotations. Aesthetically, it’s easier to access the drawings and the large installations—although each has a backstory. At deCordova, Red Hook at Bedford Terrace (2008), a sweeping spider’s web concocted of yarn, nautical towline, and shoelaces, spilled over into the adjacent stairwell. The overflow could only be seen properly from outside the glass windows, where it served as an enticement. Not content with the sculptural qualities of lines drawn in space, Pepe takes pains to point out that the shoelaces reference her father’s work as a cobbler, while the knitting and crocheting skills are a legacy from her mother.

91 BCE Not So Good for Emperors (2017), which meandered between two upper galleries, has formal appeal, its glittering chainmail seguing into rope, knit and crocheted paracord, and loose, strung-together cloth triangles something like parts for a sleazy sweater. In the accompanying video, however, Pepe holds forth not on the formal qualities or even the collaborative making of the work, but on the reasons why the year 91 BCE was a bad one for emperors.

Prominently hung in the stone center of the original museum, Second Vatican Council Wrap stopped viewers in their tracks. Its rich color and anthropomorphic symmetry bring to mind the pomp and pageantry of high-church rituals. Given Pepe’s background, we can decide for ourselves whether this is meant as satire or something else.

Pepe’s robustly inked drawings, square and intricate, have a macho geometric strength. Though we are not supposed to characterize art as “masculine” or “feminine,” that seems to be exactly the point for this artist; Pepe insists on it by using housewifely materials and crafts to create forceful work. Inspired by a fascination with New York infrastructure, particularly the transit system, she derives most of her two-dimensional work from urban, industrial imagery. “Hot Mess Formalism,” which was organized by the Phoenix Art Museum, was a mid-career retrospective for Pepe, now 59. Full of political concepts, her work thumbs its nose at Art, with a capital “A.” Viewers are likely to come away with their reactions as entangled as her webbed installations.

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