The Margin You Feel May Not Be Real
Identify the act of making as a form of visual, tactile, and spatial speech. Art is made when the maker is willing to take a position in a dialogue larger than her own conscious ruminations. No art is made without craft—whether engaged, distanced, or somewhere on a continuum of a similar relationship. In this way, meaning is made available, intentionally or not.
Art talks back to and into the history of art first, and then everything else around that artwork by necessity. By “around it” I mean the context of its making, the means and materials of it, and the sociopolitical and economic facts indicated by those choices.
This implies that makers and lovers of art fluidly grasp large vocabularies of signs—systems, methodologies, and their tropes in history as well as the moment. Above all, we’d assume everyone aspires to know many languages of making—whether paintings, pots, or gifs. No matter the stuff (or non-stuff), each one, compiled along its own technological legacy, has a language called “craft.”
During the 1980s I became schooled in various common vocabularies. In 1981 I was a ceramics major at MassArt, imagined “art” as my context, and came out as a Lesbian Feminist. I had great teachers. I read Heresies magazine and built clay bodies for color without glazing. I could fire all of the gas kilns in the shed, yet still made an unfired clay installation called “Women are Bricks.”
I was lonely in each of my budding identities. In art I worked at the margins as a lesbian making ceramics. In ceramics there was no room for anything other than clay and clay metaphors. And when I became a Lesbian Separatist, any reference to patriarchal art history became taboo. Everybody had rules. Learning the rules, as my assimilating Italian-American parents taught me, would alleviate the loneliness. Good at compartmentalizing, I lived in different cultures simultaneously. When the limits of each proved restrictively dogmatic, I was free to move on.
In 1984 I left ceramics, and separatism by 1986. Soon thereafter, I left art, and only made things for friends. I picked vegetables, cleaned, and then roofed houses in Ashfield, MA. After that I worked in art museums with some excellent collections and amazing people. When I finally returned to those art “rules,” I saw them as choices, crafts, and forms to be used as parts of larger languages.
If you look through the exhibition catalogue for The Decade Show: Frameworks of Identities in the 1980s, you will see a small part of the critical shift made by artists and curators during that period. This sampling of diversity, mounted in 1990 at the New Museum, the Studio Museum of Harlem, and the Museo del Barrio (then called the Museum of Contemporary Hispanic Art), indicated the enormity of diverse peoples working across the country, and the expanding methodologies that would further open heterogeneous dialogues in the following years. From it I learned that my studio in western Massachusetts was connected to ideas far beyond my geography. I remember thinking—“my world!”—thrilled at the prospect of more difference and a flattened hierarchy of materials, methods, and strategies.
What I did not see coming were emergent rules of inclusion. In the few years that followed, it seemed that the maker’s marginalized body, or those overt cultural signs assigned to that body, had to be mapped onto their artwork. Black people were expected to make images of black people or subjects like rap music. Gay people depicted the homoerotic or pushed codes, like camp, out of the closet. Each began as lived experience, righteously decrying national injustices; the former, American apartheid, the latter, the radical neglect of the AIDS crisis. However, mainstream receptions turned representation with the intent of inclusion into the only permissible script for the new participants.
I refused to perform the clichés of my identity in my art. I already did it every day in the world. Instead, I spoke formally to issues of difference and contingency as directly as possible through ongoing works called the Doppelgänger series. In them, I fixed a small light with its cluster of unruly of cords onto a partially handmade abstract object, casting its chance shadow. By filling that shadow with a very recognizable image, the total work launched a cascading set of differences drawn, cast, mounted onto the wall, and plugged into a common electrical grid.
First made publicly in 1994, I sought to confound the multiple, narrow, combating ideological factions I lived between. Initially, these hybrids of objects and ephemera were legible to few. But it was this work—fueled by both a linguistic and Duchampian turn—that got me into Skowhegan and later launched my career. By 1995, a further expansion of this project allowed me to carry out my utopian studio practice, charted as a Wittgensteinian notion of “family resemblance.” My “family” consisted of small abstract things made as devotional objects (called “things”); other things that were dolls; videos; Photogram Projection drawings made from cyanotype photograms and ink (a 2D version of the Doppelgängers); small installations of hand knit rubber bands, crocheted yarn; and a variety of re-combinations of all of these parts.
In 1996 I made my first crocheted installation at Simmons College, Boston. It was a cyan-blue, dimensional analogue to the cyanotype photogram drawings. In 2000 I made “Josephine”—green and purple crocheted drawings in space that cast shadows for wall-drawings. It was a constructed portrait of my mother, Josephine, who taught me how to crochet. Curator Lia Gangitano lovingly captured the whole of my practice in a tiny catalogue produced for the show, which was installed at Thread Waxing Space in Soho.
I was doing fine. In the wake of postmodernism’s death of originality and progress, the art world seemed to increasingly tout liberated, inclusive attitudes toward artists and art forms. However, underneath it all, old hierarchies still excluded by undisclosed means. Women artists claimed men as their historical precedents, even though more apt connections could be made to work by other women. Lesbians had no visible culture to reference. Feminist works were highly mediated, amplifying the fact that art made by handcraft was still “in trouble” on both sides of the aisle. On the craft side, interpretation conformed to the aesthetics of craft traditions as if they existed in isolation. On the art side, suspicions were aroused if the artist—rather than fabricators or assistants—preferred to handmake their work. Ironically, the terms of inclusion, built upon the ideas of Marx and the backs of “the other,” continued to configure form and fracture according to the art market’s needs.
I was often introduced before lectures as a “conceptual artist,” because that’s the only way folks could understand my discursive relationship to crafted forms. Ever frustrated by formal prejudices, I became equally disturbed by craft illiteracy and troubled that the feminist and lesbian cultures I came from would disappear. Then, I remembered that I was free to move on when the limits of an ideology proved restrictively dogmatic. In 1998 I stopped making video and committed my studio to hand-making with readymade materials. Soon after, I unplugged the lights, stopped drawing on walls and began crocheting big, formal drawings in space. It was a bit lonely at first, but then I found the others—first the D.I.Y.ers, and then all at once, young feminists, queers, and craft theoreticians. Craft Theory? Yup, there’s no going back now.
SHEILA PEPE is an artist and educator based in Brooklyn.