Sheila Pepe: Hot Mess Formalism

text and photos courtesy of Phoenix Art Museum

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.

The first mid-career survey of Sheila Pepe, an under-recognized artist best known for her immersive crocheted structures, is currently on view at Phoenix Art Museum. Sheila Pepe: Hot Mess Formalism reflects on the artist’s remarkable body of work to date, with a focus on the artist’s engagement with feminist and craft traditions that counter our notions of recognized or accepted forms of art-making. Because Pepe’s works are often site-dependent and site-responsive, they pose a critical challenge to traditional boundaries of museum display, an essential feature of her sculptural practice.

Left: Sheila Pepe, Red Hook at Bedford Terrace (detail with artist), 2008. Shoelaces, cotton yarn, and nautical towline. Variable dimensions. Smith College Museum of Art, Purchased with gifts from members of the Museum’s Visiting Committee in honor of the retirement of Ann Johnson. RightSheila Pepe, Put Me Down Gently, 2014. Parachute cord, laces, yarn and hardware. Installation view, Des Moines Art Center, Iowa. Collection of the artist. Photo: Rick Lozier Photography.

The exhibition is composed of more than 70 works, including the premiere of a three-story, site-specific work created exclusively for Phoenix Art Museum. Through January 28, Museum visitors will be able to experience the spontaneity in Pepe’s immersive structures, sculptural assemblages, and other works in the broadest examination to date of an artist who poses a formidable challenge to conventions of display, identity and craft.

“We are pleased to organize the first mid-career survey of the works of Sheila Pepe,” said Amada Cruz, the CEO and Sybil Harrington Director of Phoenix Art Museum. “To bring an artist like Pepe, whose groundbreaking installations challenge how we experience and think about art, is to create access to new forms of art for our region. We are excited to be a destination for internationally- known artists and to participate in conversations happening on the cutting edge of contemporary art.”

Sheila Pepe, Second Vatican Council Wrap (detail), 2013. Synthetic and natural yarn, and metallic thread. Collection of the artist. 

Pepe was born in Morristown, New Jersey, in 1959. She received a BA from Alberta Magnus College in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1981, a BFA in ceramics at Massachusetts School of Art, Boston, in 1983, and later an MFA at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in 1995. She first received significant recognition in 1997 with her participation in an exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in Boston entitled Gothic: Transmutations of Horror in Late 20th Century Art. The artist’s name has since become associated with her large-scale crocheted installations and their conceptual engagement with feminism, queer theory and economic class, themes that were highly prevalent in the art-world-discourse of the 1990s.

What Hot Mess Formalism seeks to expand upon is the critical perspective through which Pepe is viewed, encompassing a wider range of influences and impulses. This includes the artist’s reinterpretation of the “readymade,” the historic concept coined by Marcel Duchamp, which is evident in her earlier pieces as well as her found-object installations and situates her work within the larger trajectory of Modernism.

Additionally, considering Pepe within the current historical correction on the contributions of women artists provides further understanding, positioning her alongside figures including Magdalena Abakanowicz, Lenore Tawney and Sheila Hicks, who pioneered a fiber-based practice more than 60 years ago. Hot Mess Formalism aims to provide Museum visitors with a comprehensive understanding of Pepe’s work and appreciate the role she has held as a thinker and innovator for nearly 30 years.

Left: Sheila Pepe, Short Stack, 2017. Wood, paint, gloss medium. Collection of the artist. Photo by Alan Weiner.  Right: Sheila Pepe, Oversewn Object with Different Things Underneath, 2015. Fabric over accumulated object armature. Collection of the artist. 

The exhibition will feature pieces ranging from the early years of Pepe’s career to a never-before-seen fabric structure created expressly for Phoenix Art Museum. The premiere of a site-specific Museum installation has been imagined and constructed specifically for the design and architecture of the Museum’s Ellen and Howard C. Katz Wing for Modern Art, designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien. Pepe has chosen to create an installation to activate the nearly 50-foot tall central light well, a normally-overlooked space in the Museum that is visually connected to the Katz Wing’s three floors. The logistical and engineering challenges presented by the extreme verticality of this space required close collaboration with members of the local community, an essential feature of Pepe’s practice; her installations are known for their process-oriented nature, in which the artist calls on the resources of a community to contribute to the realization of a project.

Visitors will also be able to view a remake of Pepe’s Women are Bricks (mobile bricks, 1983), a seminal piece which brought key elements of Pepe’s work to the forefront: domesticity, fiber, ceramics and craft. There will also be a wide selection of sculptures, drawings and other works on view.

“For more than two decades, Sheila Pepe has created works that shape-shift according to the conditions and context of where they’re exhibited,” said Gilbert Vicario, the Selig Family Chief Curator. “This exhibition brings to Phoenix Art Museum an artist whose work comes to life through uncontrollable, contingent factors. It is this spontaneity, an essential quality of the artist’s practice, which enables the possibility for an exploration of art, chaos and the spaces where they coexist.”

Sheila Pepe: Hot Mess Formalism

Through January 28

Phoenix Art Museum


Left: Sheila Pepe, Put Me Down Gently (detail), 2014. Parachute cord, laces, yarn and hardware. Installation view, Des Moines Art Center, Iowa. Collection of the artist. Photo by Rick Lozier Photography.