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Sheila Pepe: Hot Mess Formalism
Phoenix Art Museum, Phoenix, Arizona
Recommendation by Deborah Ross

Sheila Pepe, "Short Stack," 2017, wood, paint, gloss medium. Collection of the artist. Photo: Alan Weiner

Continuing through January 28, 2018

Composed primarily of crocheted and knotted yarn, chainmaille, derby rope and shoelaces, the boundary-pushing installations of Sheila Pepe take over the museum's main atrium like vines take over a jungle. There are a few strands in particular that start on the museum’s third story and hang in one continuous line to the first floor, sometimes sweeping across the space in a scalloped effect and in one instance dropping into a pool of blue rope. The stand-alone crocheted piece “Second Vatican Council Wrap” (2013) is splayed out on a nearby wall while a “spider web” of gold metallic threads dangles in front of it. Although the title of this first mid-career survey of Pepe’s textile art, drawings and sculptures — “Hot Mess Formalism” — might insinuate mild self-deprecation, it actually encapsulates the artist’s embrace of ordinary materials and their power to communicate. Once you’re immersed in it, the “hot mess” is more like a conscious coming-together of insights into feminist theory, traditional women’s work and societal constraints, as well as the potentiality of fibrous materials.

From the atrium, the show continues with six tables of about five dozen found-object, cloth and clay sculptures. Surrounding the display are drawings on constructed paper using ink, pencil, charcoal and minimal color, several of which pay homage to urban landscapes. A third-floor gallery showcases a smaller installation of crocheted yarn, rope and shoelaces, in which community members collectively untangled and reassembled Pepe’s “Red Hook at Bedford Terrace” (2008). Like the other installations, it evokes thoughts about the ephemerality of both artistic and utilitarian endeavors.

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