Step into “Yo Mama”

Pepe invites Las Vegas to be part of her latest feminist exhibit

Sheila Pepe’s large installation piece, constructed from yarn, shoelaces and hardware.

It is always interesting to see whether an artist exhibiting in Vegas will actually engage our mythic city. Some avoid it entirely, which often seems like a missed opportunity. Others, like New York-based Sheila Pepe, see the site as an occasion, contingent material that is unavoidable by virtue of its ... uh ... charisma. The city will be a part of the experience anyway; why not engage it head-on? Faced with the prospect of an installation in Sin City, Pepe thought: “What if I bring a big lesbian love vagina to Las Vegas?” Yo Mama at Naomi Arin Contemporary Art was born.

There are a lot of ways to be subversive. In our highly aestheticized culture of consumption, the homespun is a subtle one. While the handmade does have a refreshingly earnest and authentic appeal, as evidenced by the waning hipster knitting trend, a simple domestic gesture can extend far beyond cozy. By virtue of its cultural placement, the domestic can be modest and familiar. Those same associations also allow a framework for something far more dangerous and political.

The Details

Yo Mama: Sheila Pepe and friends
Four stars
Through March 29, by appointment.
Naomi Arin Contemporary Art, 900 Las Vegas Blvd. S., Suite 120B, 324-5868.

Artists, women artists in particular, have long used traditional domestic activities and imagery as provocative material. A total stud in feminist art circles, Pepe has been a pioneer in this regard. While not exactly denying the patriarchal, Pepe has elected to embrace the lineage of awesome women who came before her. Eva Hesse, Lynda Benglis, Lee Bontecu, Ree Morton and Judy Chicago are monumental female artists whose influence is evident in Pepe’s work. These artists made highly formal and very process-oriented work that also bravely espoused modes of femininity. Taking their lead, Pepe’s large-scale installations utilize crochet and various other material references to home and family as inherently personal, yet actively feminist, gestures.

Cut to Yo Mama. The main gallery space is displaced by a flying crocheted form suspended from all corners. Spidery in its organic accumulation, it appears to be many things; soaring majestic vagina is just the most obvious. It’s also a sweepingly beautiful dimensional drawing—commanding, fuzzy, funny.

The sculpture extends far enough into the space that interaction is unavoidable. The viewer literally enters the piece, a move ripe with both formal and metaphorical implications. Proximity to the sculpture allows for a ridiculously intimate exchange. In complement to the humble materials she is known for (shoelaces, etc.), Pepe has used silver shimmering yarn in homage to Vegas. The moments when these materials intersect and fray are particularly charged. Whether you find the piece threatening or inviting, its detailed method of fabrication is alluring.

The politics of the piece extend beyond fabrication. Yo Mama is also a collaborative project celebrating maternal lineage. Pepe invited a number of artists from across the country to contribute crocheted and knitted elements to the sculpture. The pattern the artists utilized was based upon the number of letters in the name of their mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, etc. The letters of the text become textile, woven into a grand celebration of feminine strength in perceived vulnerability—the domestic, the handmade, the humble, the vaginal.

A series of paintings and sculptures by various artists further expands a critical gaze toward the female. Conceptually, as articulated by Pepe, this work is “engaging different points of view toward women.” This collection is a gem, with strikingly lovely work by Angela Dufresne, Carrie Moyer, Vera Iliatova and Frank Lind. Each is a window into the many ways we look at women.

Perceptions of the feminine tend to be filtered through the masculine. The idea of “woman” in Las Vegas is particularly compact, objectified and angular. Yo Mama antagonizes this culture with virtuosity, warmth and humor. The domestic becomes feminist, elevated and owned, while the collaborative effort erases ego and celebrates community. The structure of female genitalia provides feminine strength rooted in vulnerability and generosity.

Yo Mama is a thought-provoking bear hug of a show enveloping us in its big, beautiful vagina. Pepe thought we might need one. Her timing couldn’t have been better.


Danielle Kelly

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