Continuing our labor-themed Summer Session, today we bring you a thoughtful conversation between the artists L.J. Roberts and Sheila Pepe. Roberts asks, “What does it mean to have men who are making work that pertains to being a man—about men, male desire, and masculinity—appropriating traditional women’s work and theory that is grounded in feminism, without much accountability?” This interview was originally published on our sister site Art Practical on February 26, 2015.
L.J. Roberts: Do think your use of abstraction mixed with craft is a strategy that inserts political concerns and agendas into a form that can be accessed by a wider range of people with more avenues for interpretation? If so, my work differs greatly from yours in that way. I thought I worked very literally, but now I’m actually working figuratively, which is not where I saw myself going at all. Perhaps that closes doors on the conversation and creates less of a gateway for multifaceted conversations.
Sheila Pepe: I think we are all working literally, but we are also working to combine layers of literal signs and signals that work as metaphor and analogy. It is what it is—and it points to something else. That’s why I’m thinking again about craft and art. One could say that within the context of art, craft may be queer but only if the latter is understood as a static self-sustaining location, invested in and empowered by its marginality. To this end, there must be an inherent disinterest in becoming part of the larger whole. As a personal quest, this sounds good, but as a political one, it doesn’t: Few people have the luxury of—or interest in—living and/or working in a static state of marginality.
I’m wondering what your political ambitions are for the concepts of queer and craft. What do they look like, in your mind’s eye?
LJR: For me, lately, the politics of craft and queer identity have been revolving around the notions of women and femininity—in terms of concept, visibility, and political gain—academically and even in the market.
In disciplines that have been traditionally practiced by women, like textiles, we’ve seen a group of men—particularly cisgender men—become highly visible, which is quite different than how women working in textiles have been positioned, both historically and contemporarily. Many representations of masculinity in mainstream culture are quite violent, and so to see a man exuding a feminine masculinity—like knitting or crafting, for example—is enticing. Most of these men who position themselves within the realm of queer craft (if we want to use that term) are making work about men, male identity, and male desire (usually toward other men). The valuing of men engaged in textiles is often hyper-gendered and what I call slyly misogynist. For instance, the show Man-Made: Contemporary Male Quilters that recently opened in Los Angeles at the Craft and Folk Art Museum seems to embody a lot of the problems you and I have been talking about, in terms of the intersections of queer identity and craft. It’s a show composed entirely of white cisgender men (queer and straight) who all are making work about being male. It’s convenient to engage in women’s work to accentuate and declare masculinity. I think of these men-who-sew shows as illustrating Sedgwickian Triangles, a dynamic in which men flirt or bond through a woman who acts as a conduit—but in this context, it’s a creative practice that has been historically marginalized that is a catalyst for these homosocial dynamics. These shows have systemic consequences on so many levels, micro and macro.