Sheila Pepe’s show, “Hot Mess Formalism” has been at deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum for the past few months. I went to see it recently, then, went to a talk with the artist, on site at deCordova.

Nancy Bauer, Professor of Philosophy and Dean of School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts, did the interview. The two sat in leather club chairs, on a dais, and in front of a screen that projected Pepe’s work as Bauer referenced it.

Bauer said she and Pepe grew up similarly, in Italian/Catholic neighborhoods in New Jersey — what Bauer referred to as “Soprano’s country“.

In her introduction, Bauer said Pepe “is a flexible, intuitive, and generous thinker … she makes things with fiber that take their own shape“.

Pepe responded: The way I think about this is, “women’s crafting gone amuck“.

Bauer: What drew you to the title, “Hot Mess Formalism”?

Pepe: It’s reworked from a title I used previously called, “Hot Lesbian Formalism”. Hot Mess Formalism also borrows from, well, I can imagine two Queens saying, “oh Honey, you’re a hot mess” It also derives from a very old Black American use meaning, “she likes drama“, which gives an extra spin of messiness. I like a controlled messiness.

Bauer: So, mess equals control?

Pepe: You can’t make a mess that can be in order. Once again, form is content. These must be languages. The language changes in relation to people, and it changes.

Bauer: The “Second Vatican Council Wrap”, is magisterial and homespun. It’s too large and too long (featured image at top of this post).

Pepe: Yes, that resonates. I see it as an altarpiece of a kind, a garment not sewn together right, or before it’s sewn. I knew I wanted to make a thing in the aesthetic of the Catholic Churches of the 60s, 70s — they were modern buildings with handmade tiles, wood, glass. I saw them as great and liberating. I had visited Vence, FR in 1979. Saw the Matisse chapel and vestments. This piece was to be a great and liberating thing.

Bauer: What was your process for it?

Pepe: I have 3 or 4 maneuvers I can do in knit or crochet. In this piece, you can see where I used things up. Nothing is measured. I don’t *measure*. I don’t *count*.

Bauer: (To the audience) I don’t know if you’ve seen the video installation — it’s tucked away, downstairs in a little space. Anyway, be sure that you do see it. (To Pepe) The video installation of you putting on this fancy dress is hysterical (“Blue Dress”, 1998 video installation).

Pepe: Yes. Hysteria. It’s a dress I would never wear. A frustrating piece. I strapped on a hand-cam and jumped up and down on my bed while putting it on. This dress is kind of sexy. Kind of crazy. It’s a connection to women who are not like me by a long shot. More interpretation is like barnacles on a boat. It slows you down.

Bauer: Your “Votive Moderns”. They look like a gadget that you could buy. Or a hair thing. Or a cosmetic thing. Something to speed up life, making it easier, healthier, fit, beautiful.

Pepe: Thank you. It’s that. Or something to pay homage to that. They are everyday sculptures. A mind map. A negotiation of meanings. I didn’t grow up with that kind of sculpture. There was a bust of Mozart. A vase of flowers. There are 3 kinds of objects that are sculpture:

  1. Monuments, civic  — a guy on a horse
  2. Completely ornamental — attached to a building
  3. Things that have utility
  4. Religious

That’s 4. I think there is not a lot of thought about how these things are made.

Bauer: I love this classic piece, “Women are Bricks” (1983, remade 2017; handmade brick, rug, cement). Pepe: The rug was a giveaway. I thought, I have to figure out how do I be an artist at home? This piece is a good example of potential, not kinetic, energy. It felt taboo to mix these materials together. This is *lo-fi craft*. Knowledge of craft here, not technical craft.

Q from audience: What is your process for the Votives?

Pepe: It’s a cumulative process. They’re wishes. They’re promises. They’re spiritual.

Q: There is so much repetition in your work. Your interest in history and the repetition in it. Is it subconscious?

Pepe: Repetition is how I learned to throw myself into something and create a meditative state. To create an attention span.

The show runs through March 10, 2019. Do try to see it.


Image credit: Sheila Pepe, “Second Vatican Council Wrap”, 2013. Synthetic & natural yarn and metallic thread. Photo, mas.

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