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Sheila Pepe: Hot Mess Formalism

Sheila Pepe, Common Sense II, 2010. Crocheted baby and worsted weight yarns, rope, and community participation. Installation view, Hand + Made: The Performative Impulse in Art & Craft, Contemporary Art Museum Houston, Texas.
Syracuse, NY
Everson Museum of Art
February 14 – May 13, 2018
Omaha, NE
Bemis Center For Contemporary Arts
June 28 – September 15, 2018

It’s good to be reminded of our own impermanence. Even better when it’s done with grace and sorcery. The term “hot mess” has that effect, calling to mind the fact that we can be at once ravishingly beautiful and totally disheveled. Google’s online dictionary defines the term “hot mess” as “a person or thing that is spectacularly unsuccessful or disordered, especially one that is a source of peculiar fascination.” The online Urban Dictionary defines it as follows: “when one’s thoughts or appearance are in a state of disarray but they maintain an undeniable attractiveness or beauty.”  

For decades, American artist Sheila Pepe has constructed seemingly magical maps out of unostentatious industrial materials to remind us of the fleeting nature of all our constructions be they architectural, political, philosophical, or art historical. An architect of everyday cosmologies, Pepe fashions playful arrangements of ropes, shoelaces, chainmail, knit and crocheted yarn to adapt to each new architectural space in which the work is presented. Her massive fiber-based installations are very much the best sort of “hot mess.” These often read more like a cunning constellation pulled from inside the guts of the building—the colorful coordinates that we would find coughed up from inside all the hard-edged geometry of our docile structures—than they do a work of art announcing itself as such. Her vast catalogue of miniature sculptures, Votive Moderns, do similar work in being at once light-hearted, unassuming, thrown-together and full of pathos. Her array of drawings build configurations with a slightly different grammar. Gouache, ink, and graphite on constructed paper articulate architectural assemblages out of imaginary ducts, poles, scaffolding, bridges and more. I can’t help but think that “Hot Mess Formalism” is going to guide us through to the future. Could we envision a large-scale ritual in which our long-standing models, laws, institutions get carefully disassembled, though not erased, to provide us with the opportunity to reinterpret our own materials and intentions to invent new blueprints? Honey, we need your hot mess formalism.

In the large fiber-based installations, it’s all about the sag, the push, the pull, the pressure put on the building. These sculptures wrestle with the architectural plan of the building, or as if they’re trying to ingest the architecture into the “hot mess.” They are site-specific in that they respond in situ to the space—and change from space to space—but constant in that they perform a particular ceremony of unraveling whichever space they are in. Take a piece like Put Me Down Gently (2014). At the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, this enormous work hangs web-like across the humungous high-ceilinged atrium of I.M. Pei’s first museum. Clusters of blues, greens, and purples extend down from the ceiling in open loops and horseshoe shapes, stretching across the air to connect ceiling and wall. Some lines are clean and taught, others frayed, fuzzy, and sagging. Loops, clumps, knots, bunches, strands mingle with larger knit and crocheted sections. Given the trajectory of the space, one’s eye is drawn up and across to the open air between, rather than to the density of the materials. It’s also drawn to the play between the perfectly angular I.M. Pei and this massive growth on it. Something brand new emerges from the union; something like a reincarnated version of both the architectural setting and the industrial materials Pepe uses to shape her works Honey, we need your hot mess formalism.

To be a “hot mess” is to be a bit of trickster—disheveled sure, but there’s a sly adaptability to being a hot mess. While most people won’t get to see Pepe’s exhibition at all of its different locations, one of the most exciting attributes of her large sculptures is their various lives. At the Bemis Center in Omaha, the same sculpture described above had a completely new appearance in space. Whereas at the Everson it opened up to its full expanse, breathing fully, while at the Bemis, Pepe wrapped it tightly around a huge light blue column in the center of the back gallery. Parachute chords, lace, and yarn hugged the column. All the loops and strands that carried the eye across an open atrium here kept it moving endlessly around this large blue column. Usually an architectural eyesore in the back gallery, it was transformed into some kind of wooly mammoth with all the materials strung around it. At the Everson, Put Me Down called to mind a more web-like apparatus—a network, a scaffolding; at the Bemis, it had the appearance of some moth-eaten, worn-out article of clothing being exuded from inside the building’s depths only to affix itself to the surface like a moss.  While materials remain the same from one venue to the next, they get recast in an entirely fresh way.  Honey, we need your hot mess formalism.

While seeing this exhibition in different settings, I kept thinking about Italo Calvino’s 1972 book Invisible Cities. Framed as an ongoing conversation between Marco Polo and Kubla Kahn, the hybrid work weaves together fifty-five prose poems, each a portrait or vignette of an imaginary city in Kahn’s vast empire that Polo claims to have visited. The wildly imaginative glimpses feature cities with underground doubles, cities whose blueprints lay inside giant carpets, as well as cities whose inhabitants abandon their city to start fresh, among many others. Though entertained with Polo’s tales describing the vast reaches of his kingdom, Kahn grows frustrated with his inability to capture and categorize the entirety of his empire. No static inventory makes itself known. Reading the book itself is not unlike being inside one of Calvino’s fantastic cites: the reader experiences the text like some ever-shifting map, a living entity expanding, contracting, rearranging itself in the vein of a live maze.

Sheila Pepe, Oversewn Object with Different Things Underneath, 2015. Fabric over accumulated object armature. Collection of the artist.

By the time this piece is published, Pepe’s show at the Bemis will already be undone. It will be collapsed, boxed-up, and on its way to its fourth iteration at the de Cordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln, Massachusetts. Who knows what new world awaits, what new collaboration will emerge reminding us of the impermanence of our architectural settings. It’s a rare treat to see work that so generously invites us to recalibrate the coordinates of what we believe to be our long-standing, permanent structures and ideas. These could be the secret blueprints for future places after all our cities disappear. Honey, 2018 could use more than just a little of your hot mess formalism. 


Anthony Hawley

Anthony Hawley is a NYC-based multidisciplinary artist and writer. Recent solo projects and films have been presented by Residency Unlimited, the Salina Art Center and the Guggenheim Museum's Works & Process series. He is the author of two full-length collections of poetry and the forthcoming artist book dear donald... published by NoRoutine Books in 2021. Along with violinist Rebecca Fischer, he forms one half of The Afield, a performance collaboration for violin, video, electronics, and more. He teaches in the Hunter College MFA Studio Art Program and at SVA.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2018

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