Critics Page In Conversation
Sheila Pepe with Rina AC Dweck
Sheila Pepe (RAIL): So, Rina, you know we are doing this intergenerational conversation between artists for the Brooklyn Rail. The thing is that our generations cross in an odd way. I have older siblings close to your mother’s age, and yet technically, we are a generation apart in many ways. What I also like is that even though we are both white, we share many other differences—like religion—between us that draw us both to seeing the Mediterranean Sea as a whole, skirted by three rich, culture-bearing continents. So, I am thinking…
As an artist and citizen, what three social/cultural histories make most of the foundation of your actions and the objects/outcomes of your “doing?
Rina AC Dweck: It’s perfect that you phrased the question with artist and citizen side by side. I think one of the many reasons we have such a connection to one another is that we regard these titles as equivalents, almost interchangeable. I don’t believe in being didactic in my work, but I believe that who we are as individuals, and our core ethics, usually find their way through the work to the viewer.
- My religious upbringing absolutely had an impact on my belief systems and actions. To this day, I struggle internally with many religious concepts that were a part of my upbringing. I work at parsing out what I have internalized and want to rid myself of, and what I keep, understanding that Judaism at its core is an essential and beautiful blueprint to a universal set of ethics and way of living. I am grateful for the strong foundational education I have in understanding the law. If not for that, I don’t think I would have been able to continue to understand Judaism’s true essence or continue to question and learn. So much of who I am has to do with my religious and cultural upbringing, and much of the “doing” comes from that source. Religion might be communal, but Judaism absolutely believes in individuals being autonomous in their actions and the impact it has on the collective. I try to balance the individual and communal since I believe that both are necessary to living a rich life.
- Intimately coupled with my Judaism is a geographically tied culture. I am from a mixed Jewish background. My ancestors have come from all over the world-everywhere from Russia to Scotland, to Syria, to Egypt. But culturally, I was raised predominantly in a Middle Eastern community. The religious and cultural rituals were deeply intertwined and added to the behavior around collective living. Giving (Judaism’s ‘hesed’ or charity work) and hosting (Middle Eastern culture) function perfectly together in such a community. My dad was also an immigrant from Egypt who was evicted from his place of birth because of religious discrimination. This trauma intensified the communal way of life in America and its attachment to culture.
- “Creative Blood.” It is in my DNA. My mom is an art educator. My father was a self-taught colorist/textile designer. Art, music, and all creative works were a presence in all aspects of our lives. Aesthetics mattered. Family members were artisans of all sorts. The arts never had to be validated. They were just part of life, and because of this, I never thought or questioned becoming an artist of some sort. I always knew that it would be my path and that I would need to communicate to others using its language. These are three primary foundations of my doing. They show up in my process, train of thought, and final product. Judaism is void of iconography, so I think that pushed me towards building my own visual language to communicate, and materiality becomes important in successfully relaying such info to the viewer. It needs to be visceral. It needs to be a “thing”. Rituals and culture are full of “things.” Place and placement matter. Things happen in places. Humanism ties to things and places. Things and places are what we have in common, no matter what our identity. The culture and the aspirational opulence are the basis of my maximalism-countered-by-my minimalist gestures that come from a more pious introspective place—the place of questioning where you whittle something down to its essence. My DNA, combined with my place of origin, made me stick out like a sore thumb. I walk this life as, essentially, a rebel and rebellious thinker. I think that you are a rebel as well, Sheila. What made you one?
Rail: HA! How did I become a rebel?
Well, if I look back far enough, I could say that it comes from being a very early collector: of small pieces of quartz and mica in the dirt, of small dead animals I could ritually bury in the woods and observe; digging holes by hand on the woods and even mentally collecting the literal family resemblances between myself, my siblings, and my parents. For example, my sister and I would trace whose hand and feet we had—and hair, later teeth. Being the youngest by a lot, as time passed, I’d watch family interactions and my parents working with others at the deli: the workers, customers, and salesmen. And of course, most of the church every Sunday was spent being quiet, so I’d listen and watch to entertain myself. I stored a ton of information without much language around it, until later.
By the time I got to high school, I had a huge reservoir of seeing, hearing, and touch information. That seems like something I would never have accumulated as a child now. I also learned to watch what I’d now call inherent politics of all of the extended family interactions, relationships in the deli, at school, and mass. I remember learning the word “hypocrisy” precisely because of the church. It became clear that the nuns were always “there” for us as students and people. And the “church”—meaning the formal structure of it; priests and bishops and up the chain of command—were dismissive of them and us.
We lived on a very Anglo street, and spent every other Sunday afternoon driving to go to their grandparents’ house. Our neighbors were from Texas, California, England–one young couple was from Tulsa, Oklahoma (they thought it was funny that I liked to watch “HeeHaw”). Many dads on the street commuted to NYC for work; this was my mother’s American Dream to be in the suburban “melting pot.” And I watched how to act from them at my mother’s prompting.
I think I grew up a skeptic, but a hopeful one. I was always reaching out for knowledge and the things I could not learn in the family. I’ve maintained a vigilance to test against (internally and externally) forms of hypocrisy and reliability.
I really need to give credit to my older brother and sister (older baby boomers). They were the rebels away at college. They broke the ice for me. For example, my brother marched on Washington, my sister was the first woman of all of our 40+ cousins to leave home for school (!), and helped organize marches for Bangladesh and Cambodia in Philly. They then took those values to raise families and worked in k-12 education administration and social work, respectively. I learned from them. But I became a rebel inside a system that is completely symbolic. They really served. I’m wired to counter perceptible norms that crop up, year by year. However, I’m in a system that is amazingly corrupt, and I accept that there is no “outside of it.” All I can do is keep my eye on the edges of things. I can’t stand received knowledge unquestioned; “trends” make me nuts. All I can do is think of art as a service for the body and mind, like very long-lasting foraged food—not as a commodity. I’m pretty clear with myself; I’d rather be a gadfly than a butterfly. I’m ready for whatever the metaphoric hemlock might be.
So, let’s talk about materials.
Are there rules or associations you use to select materials?
Dweck: So just to respond to this rebel portion briefly, because I must, since it actually got me a bit choked up mostly because I see so much of my own experience in these words. I never realized until recently what an “only child” experience you had growing up. I’ve noticed that being the youngest in a family allows for very similar parallels as one with “only child” interactions.
Very often surrounded by grown-ups and grown-up situations, I did a lot of observing too. And then the actual and inevitable interactions end up being pretty mature. There’s also lots of solitary time, and this builds self-reliance. And the reliance needs to be for everything—whether it be self-care, company, activity, or fun. You have to make it up for yourself, but this is also an enjoyable and free way of existing. It takes away a lot of fear surrounding the reliance on others. You become very able. It’s an incredible gift to grow up this way when you’re an artist. It takes away so much of the anxiety and questioning that many artists go through. All those decisions made around what to explore next (ride my bike or try a new recipe?), and all those days spent in my room listening to music, or journaling or drawing or dreaming or talking on the phone without interruption, those are the kinds of cherished moments that not many people get to collect; which I did, because of its design.
What you wrote here:
“I think I grew up a skeptic, but a hopeful one. I was always reaching out for knowledge and the things I could not learn in the family. I’ve maintained a vigilance to test against both internally and externally for hypocrisy and reliability.”
This spoke to me as well. Although I don’t think I was as much of a skeptic until I got a little older, and life experiences started kicking me in the ass, I do think that this realization—that there was some sort of personal truth between the hypocrisy and reliability—is what made me a better artist. It created more of a search and took away my naïveté in the best ways possible. You have to care more to be a rebel, not less (like many are led to believe).
I think that these experiences tie in directly to where I’m at now, in my practice and material choices. For a long time, I was making art and using materials that taught me what I needed to know about the language of art, but I wasn’t making work that was reflective of who I really was. It took me years to realize my ideas related to identity and my obsession with understanding human nature—in relation to things like appearance and bias. These concerns feel like a lifelong quest, one I would never bore of. I immediately started to tap back into the strong practices I honed growing up as an only child: the intuitive self-reliance. It makes perfect sense, then, that I would go to the body for inspiration and resources.
I use hair as the basis for my narrative on identity. It’s the thread that connects the feminine, the religious, and the visceral. But honestly, I have also always been obsessed with hair. It allowed me to self-express and have autonomy over my own body. In a sea of carbon copies, I was able to morph through my change in hairstyle and eventually color. But most originally, I sucked my thumb as a kid, and I had to hold and twirl hair while doing it. I carefully felt and twisted my own, but very often, I’d sit on someone’s lap and ritualistically rub their hair between my fingers. It was calming, and it also physically connected me to this person that I loved and trusted. An energized chord. I, of course, would also report back to my mom and explain the differences in how each person’s hair felt in comparison to the other. You know you’re making the right work when it goes all the way back to the thing you’ve always done from inception.
I use found objects a lot in combination with the hair as well as other materials. We as humans connect to objects based on our identities and our own vessels. Our conceptual sides are triggered by “things”. They can bring us back in time in sensory ways. I definitely have material codes that relate to my personal narratives. I could almost make a chart key when it comes to why I might have chosen clear vinyl, latex, or a rusty found object. I keep the reasons private and to myself, yet each material choice has a very personal coded meaning. Resin very often binds the whole story together. Sometimes the composition is very thought out, at least from a starting point, but more often, I intuit the relationships and then go back. And then I think back through time to the moments that have formed me in order to understand the material-associations that have driven the work to that point. It’s deeply psychological.
Tell me about your connection to materials, Sheila. Besides the collecting of things that you’ve always done, is there an association that you might also have that takes you all the way back to your beginning?
Rail It would be fun to trade charts that we make based on the meaning associations we have for the component parts of our work. I think that’s an assignment: do our own and then do each other’s.
Sorry, but first, I have to ask a real goy question. I promise it’s material related. I always wonder what the hair issue is with Jewish women who can’t or don’t show their hair. Even more, by then, wearing wigs. Can it be someone else’s hair? Is it like the old school nuns where it’s cut off? Or held hostage under a wimple? For the nuns covering their hair was tied to issues of chastity and celibacy. But, for example, the Hasidic women I see on the bus or the ferry have kids. I keep thinking somewhere in there is a thread of meaning among all of the “Kids of Abraham”. I find it to be an alarming part of how women are singled out, and I wonder if this is in your thoughts too when you work with hair.
For me, materials are totally tied to the acquisition of those materials and the processes engaged before I get them and what I do with them—which amount to complex signs of culture, politics, and to some degree, geography. I would be happy working with any kind of materiality. So, other issues that frame my decisions are the limits of meaning, opportunity, and budget. I hand-make for a reason. But, in some cases, when it's important, I will hire it out for expert hand-making or machine making. I am relying on an audience that can read meaning based on a broad knowledge of made things—both by hand and machine, objects made well and poorly and at home and in public space. This is an audience that can locate the work on a series of many-dimensional cartesian-like categories that I’m selecting with my decisions.
For me, materials are functional in a fully physical world, and the visuals can only evoke a bodily response as maker and viewer. This second response, from eye to full body, is a critical ability in anyone who encounters sculpture. There is always a performative gesture at play through this wild horizontal, open-ended hourglass like cathecting between maker and viewer. And the maker, always as the first viewer, needs to know some things about sight, kinesthetics and that there will be both known and unknown responses to cultural information as time goes by.
I’m very much about following the logic of the late 20th-century vocabulary that I started with in this century. But I find it’s harder and harder to find people who can have a full conversation about sculpture. As “the painting” has dominated in the past few years, as a medium well suited to social media and the market. I really feel as if I am, with some others, conserving a whole way of seeing. It seems that it’s a set of languages that people either never learned to start with or that’s been easy to forget. It’s kind of similar to this feeling after COVID isolation: having to learn how to be in-person again.
You know, painting will never ask the viewer for so much bandwidth. It tends to ask just the reverse; to detach from a fully embodied world and take the invitation into a kind of unearthly space. It prompts, never replicates or impedes passages or offers extremes outside of art languages. So, as much as I love painting in its visceral flatness and its gate to the imagination, it’s more an invitation into core art space. I’m about the opposite: to use art and craft-related space to look out at the world we live in. Not something like it, but IT. And conversely, to invite those more at home with stuff—and without art—into the “artworld.”
I guess right now, the material I’m looking at is very grounded in a kind of Einstein’s “spacetime”: geography + history, opportunity + ontologies + religion, national-time, cultural-time.
I am watching my (art) world get more rigid and oddly banal. Getting COVID and crawling out of Long COVID (I hope) have really made me accept how narrowly focused we have been encouraged to be as artists/citizens. I’m trying to build a broader understanding and vision—of what I can learn about the world and what I can never know. When I make from this space, I feel like there are some things I need to and will pursue. For example, the American Bardo series are problematic on purpose, testing my willingness to follow ideas that appear unrelated but have been cultivated over years. At the moment, it appears to be a big turn to anyone that knows only my fiber work.
It’s exactly how I felt when I started to crochet the big ephemeral installations without shadow drawings in 1999. In both cases, these instincts arrive from a sense of being fed up, as a kind of dare. What am I fed up with? For one, feeling bored by career-protecting talking points that don’t ask big questions. Knowing how “to have a career” standing in for making work with great built-in problems. And in many ways, I miss complex conversations of any kind, in which people are willing to get something wrong, say it, or ask it, and by doing so deliver an illuminating idea, the next question, or wild solution to something.
Dweck: So, goy! I love how much Yiddish you’ve always proven to know. Your vocabulary goes way beyond what any ordinary New Yorker knows, which is incredible, but I have to tell you. Using the word is a bit problematic (for me as a Jew)! The biblical definition literally just means ‘nation’, but over time it has evolved to mean non-Jew. I believe that it’s turned into a word with a negative connotation since when using it, we separate ourselves from an “other”, which as you can imagine, can get a bit sticky…
We could have a whole conversation about Judaism and its relationship to hair-male or female (For ex: a Nazarite is a person who devotes themselves to God and does NOT cut their hair), and all of its intricacies, and the way its meaning has evolved over time, and even how different sects/cultures relate to the laws, but we’d need a whole other chat thread for that
There are laws for both men and women when it comes to how one presents themselves in public. For women, the covering of hair is one of many other laws connected to the category of modesty. What’s underneath the covering varies from community to community. It ranges from shaved heads to long hair and is very much tied to the customs of your sect. The same goes for the covering itself. Wigs, for example, can be intentionally awful looking so as not to attract, and others are natural hair wigs made by some of the best wig makers on the planet. Some people wouldn’t even realize that these were wigs at all, and for the women that wear them, the intention is enough. Some in this category even wear falls where some of their natural hair is a part of the mix. It’s more to them about the action and less about the look.
There are two things that stand out in my mind that really sexualize a woman regarding laws of modesty (even though you will have people argue the intention). One is that women cannot sing in front of men (female ‘voice’) except their husband and that a married woman cannot wear her hair uncovered except in front of her husband. As you can imagine, the interpretation of these laws range dramatically from orthodox community to community and has also evolved over time.
My relationship to the laws is both cultural (local) and religious in my interpretation. I do view these written laws and the inferred laws (aka expectations) as ones that push women into dark corners, have them lack autonomy over their own bodies and inevitably suppress. An Orthodox Jew who covers their hair, whether with a wig, kerchief, or hat (or combo!) of some sort, might explain that it is equivalent to a Jewish man wearing a skullcap (kippah) or head covering, which would be true. It is certainly a way to differentiate yourself from the masses and group yourself in as a “member of Abraham”. But in my view, the designated separation these women take on is much heftier, and when that is combined with modern life, surrounded by extremely different societal norms, it can and does become oppressive.
I do think that Judaism holds women in high esteem and posits them as leaders. Some of the biggest feminists are women of the Old Testament. It’s rabbinical law and modern misogyny that get in the way of a lot of the beauty and deep understanding of female strength and difference.
For me, hair as my foundational material choice is a signifier of lots and lots of things that need unpacking, definitely in Judaism, but also in how people use hair to express themselves in today’s society in relation to other forms of identity.
In regard to your explanation on materiality, I just want to comment on one thing. And that is, we, as collectors of things, have a kinship. We view things that others might consider trash as items that are charged. And we have a tendency not to want to throw things away because, for one, we hate that capitalistic concept that makes replacement seem like the better alternative. But you and I both believe that art is for the people, and as you have stated, we know that people can recognize things, and in this way, things are worth saving and reimagining.
I, too, share your frustrations around open dialogue in our society and in the art world. I just want so badly to be myself, and sadly I have fears around how much of that “self” I can be in certain situations. This need to hold back on revealing my true self is very out of character for me. The irony is that this world of ours, the one in which we emerge as artists in order to truly be ourselves, is now one filled with all kinds of rules and virtue signaling. Young rebellious me went looking for a place of comfort and safety, and now that place is tainted in similar ways to the world I was trying to free myself from. I know that many of our community feel the same way and want so badly to break out of this way of being. I have hope. When I’m in a situation like a residency, total strangers are able to come together and cohabitate even with such incredibly diverse backgrounds. We each have so much to offer in our own very personal and nuanced ways.
I know it might be hard to be brief about it, but do you have a few bullets you could share on how we can make this better? Some of your thoughts on actual actions. Please!!
Rail: I have no bullet points today (ahhh, you know I like them—and you know I might be OK with being a separate nation). I can’t and don’t want to do anything about the part of the art world that’s not interested in this stuff. It’s not going anywhere; it’s very lively. I’m just interested in talking to those who might feel similarly and/or feel shy to rely on their judgment—or connect when there are not a lot of “hearts and thumbs-up” emojis attached.
All I can say is that I’m happy we share this public space in the BR, a publication and social zoom space that still functions as a very big tent. And that what we are doing right now, having this exchange published, is a stand for engaging and trading knowledge, ideas, and even affection without concern for compensation or career. No joke. Now, let’s go back and do it just you and me (and with all of our undocumented conversation pals) and hope that we haven’t contributed to some new version of the “honesty trope.” But rather will publicly and privately reach in and support learning and constructive conflict.