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.

One of Phoenix Art Museum’s current exhibitions, Sheila Pepe: Hot Mess Formalism is the first mid-career survey of Pepe’s work, and the title couldn’t be more perfect. For more than two decades, Pepe has been crafting large-scale installations from both domestic and industrial fibrous materials, resulting in grand displays that never lose the combined presence of structure and chaos. And just like in any situation where that type of parallel is dominant, your mind immediately goes to work, trying to put those parts together to both absorb and understand the whole.

The way Pepe engages the physical space in her installations reflects a penchant for embracing nontraditional protocols. When you encounter her work, it doesn’t feel like an in-your-face rebellion, but more of an act of individualism that adds urgency to the importance of pushing the envelope. For instance, in her site-specific Put Me Down Gently installation at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston in 2014, she involved the building’s elevator shaft. That machine’s own functional motions made it become a partner with her work, giving it movement and flow.

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Sheila Pepe, Short Stack, 2017. Wood, paint, gloss medium. Collection of the artist. Photo by Alan Weiner.

Crochet, as a medium, has caused polarization in the art world. Some see it more as craftwork than fine art. Pepe acknowledges that train of thought in an interview she gave while installing Put Me Down Gently. She explains how she brings art, craft and design together to transcend those staid boundaries of thought. Work from that installation is included in this exhibition, highlighting her interesting blend of materials, such as parachute cords, yarn and laces.

In that same interview, she also talks about how she learned how to crochet from her mother as a child and then, as many kids do, abandoned it. She found her way back to it 30 years later. Now, as a feminist and educator, she uses strategic and creative thinking blended with artistic talent to weave together these new statements that defy patriarchal notions of recognized or accepted forms of art and art-making processes.


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

Just as she doesn’t pound you over the head in how she uses the exhibition spaces she works in, Pepe also doesn’t get too showy with her palette. For instance, you’ll see Common Sense II at Phoenix Art Museum, a 2010 work from Hand + Made: The Performative Impulse in Art & Craft, at the Contemporary Art Museum in Houston. Here, she utilizes red and black yarns and rope to create a complex, webby hanging piece. The bold colors are forceful, as broad shapes are created around intricate tangles. In Red Hook at Bedford Terrace (detail with artist), from 2008, it’s black, green and white shoelaces, cotton yarn and nautical towline that all unite to dangle and dazzle.

With these installation pieces and their inherent order-meets-chaos effect, it’s the viewer that becomes the middle ground. As you circle through and around these site-stylized works, the perceptions develop. Pepe has created that room, that freedom within her creation to speculate, interpret and understand.

Second Vatican Council Wrap is one of the show’s most intense pieces. Synthetic and natural yarn and metallic threads are combined in a hearty wall hanging that makes you feel its weight by just eyeing it. The Second Vatican Council was active in the 1960s to address relations between the modern world and the Catholic Church. If it is a direct reference to religion in Pepe’s own life, then it would probably be a fair assumption that it involved complexity.


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

Hanging fiber pieces aren’t all you will see. Short Stack is one of Pepe’s wood sculptures that also feature paint and gloss to create a platform of loosely stacked black pieces. They support a wood square on top that slightly resembles the back of the witness-stand seat in a courtroom. There’s also Oversewn Object with Different Things Underneath, which uses fabric over accumulated armature to create an abstract figure. This piece has a distinct sense of whimsy that isn’t prominent in Pepe’s work.

Currently, Pepe is the Core Critic in the Painting + Printmaking Department at Yale, following years of teaching at numerous universities, including Bard College, Brandeis University and RISD. With a vast number of acclaimed solo and group exhibitions under her belt—in both galleries and museums—this mid-career survey was due. In 2018, the exhibition travels to the Everson Museum of Art and the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts.


Sheila Pepe: Hot Mess Formalism

Through January 28

Phoenix Art Museum


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Sheila 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.