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art: Abstracting Meaning

Sheila Pepe's installation isn't quite aesthetically equal to her technical effort.


In modest contrast to this large, labor-intensive work is a selection of "New York Drawings" — beautifully rendered, densely composed collages that use the accumulative aesthetic of her installation, in paired-down form.

The two approaches make for an interesting contrast.

In the six small rectangular drawings of her "New York" series, complex patterns of thick lines and other abstract forms — rendered in bright-to-neutral whites, grays, purples and blacks — evoke the visual intricacy of the urban environment. Layers of drawing and collage combine to create a mazelike portrait of the city — as seen from the street, looking up.

There is something surprisingly old-fashioned about these drawings. Their sprawling architectural structure and tight, convoluted compositions curiously evoke the imaginary prisons of Piranesi, but without that artist's grim, claustrophobic tone. Truer ancestors are perhaps found in the works of early American modernists like Charles Demuth, Joseph Stella and Stuart Davis — artists who, like Pepe, exulted in the creation of exuberant, abstract evocations of their city's interlocking industrial shapes.

But if the "New York Drawings" confidently address the past, "Under the F & G" faces the future less steadily.

The title refers to the artist's studio, located under the F and G elevated trains in Brooklyn, and the work shares the same black, purple and white palette as the drawings. But here Pepe uses her many strings of shoelaces to "draw" in the air itself. She also "draws" with the absence of light, and the spidery, silver shadows cast through her piece onto the walls, ceiling and floor of the carefully lit space are one of the work's sublime qualities.

But as playful and engaging as the work is, it is also problematic. Like many ambitious, handmade installations it fails to fully create its own distinct environment. The work feels crammed into the low-ceilinged space of the Hand Workshop. While it contains many graceful passages, in places it seems too sparse and skeletal, and in others, the mass of crocheted shoestrings looks lumpy and heavy rather than light and lyrical.

One can't help looking at "Under the F & G" and thinking, "Boy, this must have been hard for one person to do" (and according to curator Ashley Kissler, it took Pepe five days to install the piece). Its aesthetic quality isn't quite up to its technical ambition.

The piece also suffers from ambivalence about the importance and meaning of its materials. While the multiple associations triggered by its overarching form are varied and satisfying, the significance attached to specific elements — crochet, shoelaces, colors — is less convincing. According to Kissler's exhibit notes, Pepe was taught to crochet by her mother, and "the legacy she has inherited from her Italian-American family informs her art in other ways." So, for example, the shoelaces refer to a grandfather who operated a shoe repair shop, while the purple laces refer to the vestments Catholic priests wear at Lent, as well as to the violet-colored funerary streamers recently popular in New York.

All of this may be true, but is it really significant? Without knowing so in advance, would any viewer make these associations when confronted with the great black spider's web hanging from the ceiling in the Hand Workshop? Crochet and shoestrings might just as easily represent cheap materials and an efficient binding method, and the purple, black and white palette feels more tongue-in-cheek "Goth" — "Beetlejuice" rather than post-9/11 Brooklyn — than anything else. And what do the biomorphic, curvilinear forms of the installation have to do with the hard-edged urban environment of the title?

None of this has to weaken "Under the F & G" as a work of art. Other Pepe works mix recognizable imagery with abstraction to interesting effect. But in this work with no obvious content, falling back on such associations feels like a loss of nerve — a forced attempt to add a subjective layer of experience to art which is, perhaps, better appreciated as pure abstraction. S

"Sheila Pepe: Under the F & G" runs through March 9,at the Hand Workshop Art Center at1812 W. Main St.

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