A Welcome Display of Beauty

“It couldn’t be more different, that’s right,” museum staff are overheard saying, “It couldn’t be further away from the last exhibition at the PMA—it’s fantastic” This catches the mood among Portland Museum of Art staff as, despite an ice storm earlier this month, the PMA opened “Carrie Moyer and Sheila Pepe: Tabernacles for Trying Times.” It’s the first major joint exhibition of Skowhegan School alum, queer activists and loving spouses Carrie Moyer and Sheila Pepe.

One step into the gallery confirms what everyone is saying. This exhibition is vibrant, colorful and engaging in a way that many exhibitions struggle with.

The PMA’s last major exhibition explored the works of N. C. Wyeth. That show was both striking and beautiful in its own right. It was also exactly what many people think a major art exhibition looks like. It held many classic paintings and illustrations of people, places and landscapes, all mounted on the wall. It was also a show dedicated to the patriarch of the Wyeth family.

In this way, “Tabernacles for Trying Times” is completely different. It’s a breath of fresh air and a welcome change.

Painter Carrie Moyer and sculptor Sheila Pepe met at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in the summer of 1995. In the most recent issue of “PMA Magazine,” Moyer tells of the first time she met her wife. Pepe casually entered Moyer’s private studio and began talking about her paintings. Moyer says of that encounter, “As offended as I was by her casual audacity, I was secretly intrigued to meet another working-class lesbian artist my age.”

Since that summer in Maine, the two artists have worked alongside each other. This, however, is their first major exhibition together. And in this exhibition, their art works so well together. They are known globally for their colorful abstract works that are informed by feminist politics and queer activism.

Moyer creates vibrant, lush and richly colored abstract paintings. They’re dazzling to see and impressive to behold. They make viewers reflect on both what is on the canvas and what is on their own minds. She sometimes mixes glitter into acrylic paint. It’s a technique best described as a way of subverting abstract art’s reputation for being dominated by hetero men.

Pepe’s abstract sculptures are equally engaging. She doesn’t just sculpt, she creates whole environments using yarns, rubber bands and nautical line to create spaces that capture the senses. Pepe’s works transform the gallery space into something most viewers have never seen before. It’s also oddly familiar. Her sculptures hang from the ceilings and the walls like spider webs in some places. In other places they play with the space in a whole new way. They are colorful and inviting in their own way. Being around them brings a sense of security.

This sense of safety is a big theme for Moyer and Pepe. It’s an idea they call “big tent.” They invite visitors to spend time, and in special cases engage directly, with the art. This is reaffirmed in the show’s title. The PMA reminds us that “tabernacles” have many meanings, but most generally involve people gathering for religious ceremonies. There’s nothing religious about this exhibition, but it does inspire people to gather.

The gathering is thanks in part to the curator behind the exhibition, Jaime DeSimone. In the most recent issue of “PMA Magazine,” DeSimone said of Moyer and Pepe, “I have long admired each artist’s dedication to and ongoing exploration of abstraction, and I was drawn to their feminist practices.…” Her appreciation for Moyer and Pepe shows throughout the exhibition. The show spills out into the PMA’s Great Hall and up into the second floor spaces where older portraits hang. DeSimone’s work as curator shows a commitment to presenting these works in a way that opens conversations and engages the community.

At the end of the day, that is the goal of this exhibition. It aims to create a sense of togetherness. Moyer and Pepe bring much-needed color, motion and life to an otherwise gray February. There is art for everyone in this exhibition’s use of both painting and sculpture. Moyer and Pepe create spaces, share ideas and open doors while offering a visually stunning and immersive experience.

This exhibition, on view through June 7, 2020, is a must-see, if for no other reason than it’s certain that viewers have never seen anything like it before.

Carrie Moyer & Sheila Pepe, image courtesy of the Portland Museum of Art.