Published December 2004 in Art in America
Was it a coincidence that upon setting off to view the exhibition “Two Women: Carrie Moyer and Sheila Pepe” at the PBICA, which featured work by artists then unknown to me, I slipped a newly purchased, original cast recording of Hair (1968) into the CD player of my car? Or was it something in the air-the current political situation, war in Iraq, and the general state of society-that has made the counterculture sensibility of the late ‘60s ripe for nostalgia and revival?
Carrie Moyer is a painter who intermingles motifs derived from the graphics of radical political and social movements, and rock and pop posters, with hard-edge and flatly rendered or lush, organic and textured painted passages (stained and poured) rooted in the art of the ‘60s. Sheila Pepe is a sculptor who produces site-specific installations consisting essentially of macramé, the hand-knotted lace omnipresent in the hippie era, taken to monumental scale. Moyer and Pepe, who are in their mid-40s and live together as partners, both look back to the late ‘60s in their work, but they do so in highly individual ways that accord with personal experience.
Extending from floor to ceiling and from one end to the other in the museum’s large ground-floor gallery was Pepe’s Gowanus (2004). Like a number of her previous installations, it mainly consists of thousands of shoelaces knotted and crocheted together in different configurations. Black shoelaces create a giant spider-web or net replete with large gaping holes. Great swaths of red shoelaces swiftly traverse the space, at one point coming together to form a loose, airy grid that counterpoints the more orderly geometric grill of a bright red shopping cart anchored high on the wall. The artist has explained that shoelaces hold a personal significance: her grandfather repaired shoes after he immigrated to New York from Italy, and her mother taught her to crochet when she was a child. She finds the labor-intensive nature of her enterprise appealing as a means of honoring handicraft and women’s work. Except for their focus on handspun materials her installations recall the work of artists ranging from Eva Hesse to Judy Pfaff, Jessica Stockholder and Sarah Sze, and carry crochet from the domestic sphere into the realm of architecture.
New in Gowanus is braided tugboat towrope in a gorgeous shade of blue. The rope sweeps gracefully across the room, falling in heaps upon the floor at various points and forming wave or ripple patterns upon the ceiling at others. The ceiling formations suggest that the viewer is at the bottom of the sea looking up, an interpretation reinforced by other watery allusions, among them the use of nautical rope and the title, which refers to the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, near the artist’s studio. Columns of white shoelaces intimate a cascade or a shaft of sunlight penetrating a body of water (according to this interpretation, the shopping card would be floating on the surface). Moving through the space, the spectator meets with constantly changing views as the piece unfolds in transparent layers.
Sharing the same gallery and infusing it with bursts of color were Moyer’s paintings, which also exploit layering, transparency and textural play. Most are characterized by a sense of things hanging and dripping, byproducts of the artist’s pour techniques, and provoke a kinesthetic response in the viewer similar to that experienced in relation to Pepe’s three-dimensional art.
It is supremely relevant to Moyer’s art that she was the daughter of nomadic hippies who raised her on communes in the Northwest. Schooled from a young age in radical politics, Moyer is today an activist, co-founder with photographer Sue Schaffner of Dyke Action Machine, a collaboration agitating for lesbian culture. Among the signs and symbols found in Moyer’s paintings are those related to gay pride, Communism (a portrait of Emma Goldman, Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International) and Buddhism. Images include the raised fist of the Black Panther Party, a detail from a 1968 French student rebellion poster, the Grateful Dead’s skull logo and the peace sign. Other motifs were unrecognized by this writer, for Moyer often selects obscure vignettes from radical propaganda that she finds on the Internet.
Moyer’s bold graphic motifs are combined with all manner of painted marks and touches, from subtle washes and ethereal passages dusted with glitter to areas of stain in vivid colors and opaque, shiny passages so thick as to be cracking. In Amerika (2000), Reverie (2001), Affiche #6(Avenger), 2002, and other works featuring female imagery are smeared and clotted with passages of blood red, demonstrating that the artist’s activist agenda involves a highly feminized world view.
While the title of the exhibition, “Two Women,” seemed odd at first (would the curators, Michael Rush and Dominique Nahas, ever have thought to call a show “Two Men?”), the fact that these artists are not only women but gay women is highly relevant to their artistic production and to the way their work is intended to be experienced and received. Like their art, the title is both a throwback and an assertion of the present.