Militant art often has a bad reputation.
The term can conjure up images of direct and brutal political protest, the loud and angry rebellion against the establishment that dominated the late 1960s. For many contemporary artists, however, militant art is about engagement. social, a call for conversation, for the promotion of the community, rather than a revolutionary rallying cry. “Carrie Moyer and Sheila Pepe: Tabernacles for Trying Times,” now at the Portland Museum of Art, is a captivating glimpse into the work of two of these artists.
Moyer and Pepe, a New York-based couple who first met 25 years ago at the Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture, have spent their careers creating a more inclusive space for feminist, lesbian and queer within the artistic establishment with visually rich, playful and nuanced work while remaining provocative. Although they use different materials – Moyer, 59, is a painter, and Pepe, 60, an artist of fiber-based installations – the two women use the language of abstraction to push the boundaries of their own. chosen medium, transforming artistic practice into an act of recovery.
Raised by counter-culture parents in the 1960s, Carrie Moyer spent her childhood rooted in radical politics. In 1991, as a young artist in New York City, Moyer co-founded Dyke Action Machine! (DAM!), A public art project that blanketed the city with clever agitprop posters inserting lesbian imagery into mainstream commercial contexts.
In Moyer’s abstract paintings, process – more than politics – defines the work. His large-scale compositions are sumptuous experiments on the material and textural possibilities of acrylic as a medium, his canvases filled with sultry pours of vibrant colors, opaque layers of paint and transparent glazes, soft waves and edges. hard. “I’m going for beauty, seduction, and play – a physical experience, an optical experience,” Moyer wrote.
Indeed, Moyer’s work has a visceral effect: “Four Dreams in an Open Room” is a dazzling tower of luminous, flat shapes and translucent washes that play with the sense of space. “Swiss Bramble” covers an undulating abstract landscape with an electric blue two-dimensional overlay full of amorphous holes resembling Swiss cheese. As viewers strain to glimpse the intriguing textures below, black dots dotted throughout the room defiantly return their gazes.
But amidst the lush coats of paint are also a plethora of references – and subtle subversion. “Intergalactic Emoji Factory” is a stunning canvas awash with layers of jewelry-toned paint in the style of 1950s Color Field paint, with a dark spaceship-style shape emitting brilliant bands of sparkling, sparkling smoke in its sound. center. Openly, it is a commentary on contemporary culture and the rapid creation – and equally rapid acceptance – of our new pictorial language. Yet the glitter of the work, which can be found in virtually all of Moyer’s paintings, is not simply a decorative element but an ingenious means of “queering” the history of abstraction, an associated artistic style. to hyper-masculine painters like Pollock, Kline and de Kooning.
Sheila Pepe also uses unconventional materials to convey her artistic message. Describing his technique as an ‘improvisation hook’, Pepe creates elaborate fiber installations that marry the personal and the political, challenging patriarchal notions of ‘domestic crafts’ and ‘women’s labor’.
In “Downtown, ” a floor-to-ceiling grid-patterned partition evoking the midtown Manhattan cityscape is woven from tulle and laces (the latter being a tribute to Pepe’s Italian grandfather’s shoe repair shops in New York City) and anchored by a nautical towing cable, symbolically weaving the high-end exclusivity of the district and the workers’ economies which contributed to its construction. The tension between aerial ornamental materials and heavier industrial materials is palpable, underscoring the work’s powerful message on the classroom.
For “91 BCE Redux,” named after the Roman Republic’s social warfare against several Italian cities, Pepe uses tarnished chain mail to create a sagging abstraction of the contiguous 48 United States, flanked by intricate constructions of knotted threads. In the government’s current crackdown on immigration, Pepe foresees a disturbing repeat of history; once again, the material play exacerbates the tensions inherent in the work.
Despite their large scale (many installations had to be downsized for this show) there is an intimacy in Pepe’s three-dimensional creations, the delicacy of his handmade crochet work is an invitation to human connection. In “Common sense; Portland, Maine, ”a massive and immersive crocheted structure of black and purple threads at the center of the exhibit, Pepe takes the invitation one step further, allowing viewers to slowly and collectively“ undo ”the artwork at selected times during the exhibition. of the exhibition. The “work in progress” is not finished until fully unraveled, the materials brought home by others for their own creative purposes.
A very different “game” occurs between Moyer and Pepe when they collaborate, a practice started at the Yaddo artist community in 2011 and continued in subsequent residencies. The couple’s experiences with cross-pollination are often original: “Carries a Soft Stick,” which features a two-dimensional wall assembly of a silhouette with a soft sculpted baseball bat leaning against it, is a full variation of spirit of both an old saying and Moyer’s first name. “Opera Buffa” hangs 26 designs based on Italian churches and castles in the form of an altarpiece, its playful irreverence – busty gargoyles adorning columns, a sexually suggestive “gem-in-the-lotus” style. altar crown – as much for their audience as for themselves. Although less artistically important to their works, these collaborations offer a delicious glimpse into the couple’s playful personal relationship.
With “Parlor for the People”, a site-specific work commissioned by the PMA for this exhibition, Moyer and Pepe have taken the collaboration to a different level. In their most ambitious joint project to date, the couple reinvented the religious tabernacle – in Christianity, a sacred meeting place for worship, in Judaism, a portable tent used as a sanctuary for the Ark of the Covenant – as a common space where visitors can, explains Moyer, “earn a living as a community with natural differences”.
Under a sculptural blanket of delicate canvases and colorful floral clouds, a gathering space adorned with handmade stools, pillows and rugs will host Dream Action Factory, a series of community programs exploring some of the city’s central ideas. exposure and how they connect us as a company. It is a space for dialogue, listening, listening – social arts which have unfortunately been absent, and sorely needed, in these difficult times.
In the absence of an event, “Parlor” is a place to pause and reflect, and bask in the dynamic work insightfully installed by PMA’s associate curator of contemporary art, Jaime DiSimone. Sitting on one of the stools inside the room, I saw the lovely “Vieni Qui Bella” by Carrie Moyer on the back wall of the gallery. The work, whose title means “come here beautiful” in Italian, is Moyer’s “obvious love letter to my wife”, a clash of passionate red paint and scalloped shapes reminiscent of Pepe’s crochet installations.
Of all the glorious and enlightening spaces in which “Tabernacles for Trying Times” welcomes us, this is by far the most important and sacred of all.
Stacey Kors is a longtime writer and artistic editor who lives on Peaks Island.