A smidgen of blue fiber spills over the wall along the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum’s central staircase. Is a viral mold taking over the museum? Or perhaps it’s a Tribbles situation. Welcome to “Sheila Pepe: Hot Mess Formalism,” on view through March 20.
Pepe, who lives in Brooklyn, attended Massachusetts College of Art and Design in the 1980s and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts in the 1990s. She made an early splash in a 1997 show at the Institute of Contemporary Art, “Gothic: Transmutations of Horror in Late-Twentieth-Century Art.”
There her goofy little abstract sculptures cast imposing shadows. She fleshed the shadows into threatening pictures on the wall, drawing lurking fears, blowing fresh air into the meanings we project.
Since then she has cultivated an international career, and is best known for large-scale fiber installations that hang and tangle.
Much of her art is conditional: What does the space call for? What’s on hand to make into art? The fiber installations in “Hot Mess Formalism,” which was organized by the Phoenix Art Museum, adapt to wherever they’re hung. They may fly overhead, twist in front of you, or loll across the floor. Sometimes they do all three. In the past, Pepe invited viewers to unravel such works and use the yarn for their own projects. The knotted, looping, droopy installations — abstract drawings bursting into three dimensions — are monumental and engulfing, but they’re also fugitive.
Her art shrugs off self-importance. She’s after something else, something slippery, daring, and strangely comforting, that honors folks in the shadows — like her Italian shoemaker grandfather, or her LGBTQ community, or people who love to crochet. To do that, like many contemporary artists, she collapses stodgy dichotomies — between monumental and fugitive, between the masculinity of architecture and the feminine domesticity of crochet, between sculpture and drawing or art and craft. Old notions and hierarchies crumble, and Pepe prowls around for goodies in the rubble.
There she finds aspects of feminism, minimalism, abstraction, identity art, and her Catholic upbringing. “Second Vatican Council Wrap,” a fiber piece installed perfectly in an archway here, recalls priestly vestments, Gothic cathedrals, and a hint of drag-queen — or is it ecclesiastical? — glitz. The “Votive Moderns” tabletop sculptures mush together found objects with clay or plaster into fey, ungainly, endearing little forms.
Webby installations such as “Red Hook at Bedford Terrace” and “91 BCE . . . Not So Good for Emperors” bring to mind the threat, scope, and industry of Louise Bourgeois’s spider sculptures.
But Pepe’s morphing, coiling, pendulous installations, often made of neon-colored shoelaces, derby rope, and nautical towline, are also festive and somehow cozy, like your grandma’s afghan gone haywire. The artist, who crochets these things herself, has become the spider. She has entered the shadow, turned the lights on, and found the place hospitable.
Tuesday Smillie, an LGBTQ fiber artist born in Boston a generation after Pepe, has a small show of transgender protest banners at Brandeis University’s Rose Art Museum (through Dec. 9). Like Pepe, she finds her way into the uncertainty that arises when you blow up binaries. Gender is Smillie’s platform to prod at other divisions — between self and society, signage and art, even right and wrong.
In polarized times, we forget that patience with gray areas can help restore our humanity. Always part of the human story, gender fluidity is a relatively new idea in political discourse. Smillie’s work examines some of the formative imagery of the transgender movement.
She draws careworn paperback covers of Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Left Hand of Darkness,” a 1969 novel about a planet whose inhabitants cycle between sexes. She revisits text of Le Guin’s responses to feminists faulting her for using masculine pronouns. The novelist at first resisted the criticism, but later acknowledged she had made a mistake.
Smillie admires that. Screwing up is evidence of progress. Admitting your screw-ups is even better. Own what’s difficult, and move forward.
Her banner “Wound” reads “your wound is a blessing.” The text is emblazoned on satiny orange quilted fabric, and the batting leaks out the sides, a testament to exposure. Punched black leather could be armor; a glittery gold-bead curtain honors the late gay activist artist Felix González-Torres.
These pieces are not about packaging clever slogans; they’re about opening up places we’ve kept closed off.
In “Street Transvestites 1973,” the artist re-creates a banner from the Christopher Street Liberation Day Parade, a precursor to Pride. It reads “Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries.” Smillie renders in black lace the shadows of folds visible in a photo of that protest, giving them the weight of metaphor, finding beauty in the darkness.
It can be frightening when the categories we live by collapse, but there’s no going back. I saw Smillie’s exhibition last week, after news broke that the White House is proposing to legally define sex as male or female, determined by a person’s genitals at birth. Postings about a Million Trans March on Washington next year appeared on social media.
One of Smillie’s banners now hanging on a museum wall seemed particularly apropos for that protest: “Some women have penises. Deal with it.”
SHEILA PEPE: Hot Mess Formalism
At deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, 51 Sandy Pond Road, Lincoln, through March 20. 781-259-8355, www.decordova.org
TUESDAY SMILLIE: To build another world
At Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, 415 South St., Waltham, through Dec. 9. 781-736-3434, www.brandeis.edu/rose