Fiber arts link us naturally to domesticity. Sheila Pepe expands the medium, and in the process, welcomes the viewer to be part of the artistic event.
Pepe’s “Hot Mess Formalism,” now on view at the deCordova museum, has colorful knotted constructions climbing up a staircase to the second floor gallery, layering that room across the ceiling, continuing in the foyer leading out of that gallery, and then finding itself again in the third floor Foster Galleries, ignoring the natural boundaries of those rooms and sweeping through doorways and around corners.
Along the way, the fabric creations—large, open nettings, hanging above, along the walls, and resting on the floor—shelter other media. Geometric drawings, suggesting cityscapes or building designs, are mixed in with videos and vernacular sculptural objects. The centerpiece, a large ornamental robe weaving called Second Vatican Council Wrap—dominates the foyer wall between the two installations.
For all its diversity in media, Pepe’s “Hot Mess Formalism” remains airy, inviting, almost simple. Spread out over so much of the deCordova, it feels organic, like part of the original space.
Pepe’s installations are site-specific; there are times (not here, at least not yet) when she invites viewers to dismantle her work, and re-install it with their own vision. While that inclusiveness is not inherently part of “Hot Mess Formalism,” that feeling still pervades.
The main second floor gallery feels enclosed, but it breathes. With the knotted fabric—Pepe has referred to this work as “improvisational crochet”—leading up the stairs into the gallery, once viewers arrive there, the sense of being welcome into the space is palpable.
The objects inside add to this feeling. A series of tables show “Votive Moderns”—wood pieces dipped in plaster, fabric designs attached to other objects, boards with nails—all simple things, looking mostly like what could be found on a strange basement work-bench. A video of someone making meatballs—rounding them carefully by hand, then placing them symmetrically on a cooking sheet—is comforting and homey. Her installation “Women are Bricks” sits along the floor.
There are many ways to approach “Hot Mess Formalism.” Pepe has set up a work area on the second floor, where viewers can sit and create in their own style. Although this is just a corner of the sprawling exhibition, it feels like the heart of it.
Another new exhibition at the deCordova, a retrospective of photographer Larry Fink’s work, “Primal Empathy,” draws largely from the museum’s collection. The work—some four dozen photos—shows Fink’s love of his subjects, and his respect for the camera.
There are several sets of photos. A series ironically entitled Social Graces visits both birthday parties in rural Pennsylvania and high-society formals in New York City. A series of boxing photos from a gym in Philadelphia focuses on close-ups of the combatants at rest. Demonstration photos juxtapose protests from the 1960s with contemporary marches. A few nature photos spotlight the praying mantis.
The work is entirely black-and-white, the subjects caught candidly. While many of the photos reveal tense or disaffected narratives, none of them seem to condescend to the subject. What looks like a family dispute during a birthday party gets captured, but not magnified. A bored woman, sitting next to her passed-out date on a nightclub couch, looks austere, not angry. Portraits of boxers hardly look like mindless gladiators; instead, they seem like regular guys, getting ready to do their job.
This reverence for subject transfers to Fink’s working method. His only “trick” as a photographer is to play with the lighting. Where one would expect flash to illuminate a subject’s face, instead a table full of drinks in the foreground gets the focus. The subjects loom in the background, deeply shadowed.
Demonstration photos show a decided lack of imagination in the protestors. Both fifty years ago (the Moratorium marches of the 1960s) and more recently (the Women’s March in 2017), the visual aspects of the protests are disturbingly similar. With serious or enraged participants, threatening police, flags, famous monuments and posters used as props, Fink makes it seem (intentionally or not) that very little changes, despite the collective outpouring of anger.
Only two of Fink’s nature series find their way into the main gallery—beautiful photographs of the forbidding praying mantis. However, three larger photos in a similar style are tucked away in the mezzanine area between floors, and viewers should not miss them.
Both Sheila Pepe’s “Hot Mess Formalism” and Larry Fink’s “Primal Empathy” run through March 10 at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, 51 Sandy Pond Road, Lincoln. For tickets and information visit www.decordova.org or call 781-259-8355.