Sheila Pepe, A Mutable Thing (detail), 2011, crotched string and fabric, dimensions variable. Installation view at Sue Scott Gallery.
One of Sheila Pepe’s choice materials has been the ordinary shoelace, so present in our everyday lives as to be almost invisible. Tying your shoelaces is a ritual shared by most and may hold an exceptional significance for an artist based in New York, this great city of the pedestrian. The quick trance-like affair between fingers and lace not only fastens your shoes to your feet but marks the threshold that connects interior and exterior, private and public, the domestic and the social. That is to say, you tie your shoes because you are going out.
Referring to her technique as “improvisational crochet,” Pepe loops and knots thousands of laces together to form sprawling installations as she moves from the personal to the monumental, from the space of her lap into the space of architecture, while somehow never leaving one behind for the other. Crocheting, a skill she learned from her mother, not only forefronts the feminist underpinnings of her work but also provides a hands-on, referential counterweight to the soaring abstract formal invention on display. The resulting back and forth creates a feedback loop that opens up a space rife with allusive potential, actively inviting subjective interpretation.
A prime example of this is Under the F & G, a site-specific installation Pepe did at the Visual Art Center of Virginia in 2003. Suspended from D-rings, a mangled canopy of crocheted purple, white, and black shoelaces dodges and weaves across the entire length of the gallery. At once composed and chaotic, this epic derelict antenna hovers in limbo, seemingly held aloft by the signals it transmits and receives to and from the visitors who surround and confront it. An endless array of allusions springs to mind—shredded fishnet stockings, spider webs, hammocks, neural pathways, nomadic dwellings, acrobatic safety nets, kids’ makeshift forts, the flight patterns of pigeons, river systems, air traffic control maps, the electrical grid, and so on. Engaging the body kinesthetically with its enveloping scale and playful sense of space, Under the F & G is also optically charged. Plastic lace tips catch the light like an army of shimmering thorns, while dense sections of Soul Train-purple give way to airy black grids as white laces flash then disappear against the bright walls only to announce their presence elsewhere, more acutely, in shadow.
Complicating the deadpan, Duchampian humor in her choice of shoelaces as an art material is the fact that her grandfather, upon emigrating from Italy to New York, got a job repairing shoes. When considering this family history, as well as her formal conjuring of artists such as Eva Hesse and Faith Wilding, Pepe’s installations can be seen as performing a kind of intergenerational embrace, both humble and heroic, minimalist and baroque. Like somebody augmenting their TV antenna with aluminum foil and twisty ties in order to tune in their favorite channel, Pepe’s work has the unexpected radiance of something born out of necessity, not merely aesthetics.