Pepe Mar: Dragonfruit
September 27, 2019 - 2020
Mattress Factory, Pittsburgh
Miami-based artist Pepe Mar presents Dragonfruit, a monumental, year-long installation at the Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh. In this body of work, Mar absorbs, and ultimately scatters back to his viewer, the layered and disparate historical references which pollinate his career: he cites the history of art and Indigenous artistic practices; of fashion and the queer club scene of the last forty years; of the Mattress Factory itself; and of his own fifteen-year practice. Creating a series of custom textiles with images borrowed from these diverse sources, Mar collages, sews, and paints this material, and ultimately brings together these distinct imageries to derive entirely new contexts from the recombined originals. The sum of these parts is Dragonfruit, a Gesamtkunstwerk (German for “universal artwork”) which overflows from the walls of the gallery space and collapses these various references into one comprehensive work of art.
Central to Mar’s process are humanoid figures he calls Paprikas. These characters feature throughout his work, and they serve the role of mythological devourers who ingest and digest visual references from the many fonts of inspiration which inform Mar’s practice. They are what they eat in the most literal sense, with bodies collaged from a slew of found materials which the artist collects in his studio. Paprikas have appeared in Mar’s practice from his earliest works to those most recent, and these figures reflect new points of influence from which Mar borrows: some Paprikas have been made predominantly of clippings from fashion or gossip magazines, others from famous artworks snipped from art historical textbooks, and others still from pieces of found ceramics, bronze, and wicker baskets. The viewer can readily witness this evolution across the swathes of printed textiles which feature images from Mar’s past works. In this regard, the exhibition offers a trajectory of Mar’s career from past to present. For Dragonfruit, Mar creates a new generation of Paprika made predominantly of leather, harnesses, and chains purchased from second-hand stores with close ties to the LGBTQ community, allowing references to the queer club, bondage, and leather scenes to bubble up to the surface of his practice.
Through this body of work, Mar ushers forward decentered histories which are close to him and his practice. Key to this revisionist process is the history of social stigmatization through which LGBTQ communities endured in the 20th and 21st centuries. These references have long been present in Mar’s practice, but they more readily find a platform in his latest iteration of sexually awakened Paprikas which stand spread-legged and donning leather erections. In his four-volume work The History of Sexuality, French philosopher Michel Foucault argues in part that discourses of sexuality, in revolt against repressive systems, become a form of political liberation. In sexualizing his Paprikas, Mar takes to task the social and cultural forces which have censured queer life and relegated its expression underground. In Dragonfruit, Mar sheds light on the influence of queer culture and sexuality in popular culture, and the importance of queer voices—and those from other minority communities—in culture at large. Fashion, and its ties to queer nightlife, is one of the threads which Mar follows in the visual elements which comprise this installation. Bold designer garments from Mar’s own closet become interesting sculptural textiles which he includes among the exhibition’s custom-printed fabrics; these pieces of clothing stand, in part, for the artist himself and bring this vast collage to a more human scale.
The history of art, and of exhibition practice, share a similar centrality in Mar’s work. His collages serve as sites for display, allowing found artifacts, images, and objects to live in a curated selection of visual materials taken from the artist’s realms of influence. These individual elements stand on their own while existing as part of the greater Gestalt of the installation. Taken further, Mar repurposes the structures of exhibition displays—in the form of small pedestals and shelves—which he embeds within his works as sculptural elements. Through this exercise, the artist brings the practices of art- and exhibition-making to the very subject and function of his work. In the case of Mar’s custom-printed fabrics, the visual treatment of exhibition is extended into an archival impulse, serving as a record of the artist’s career. And to this end, Mar borrows pointedly from his stylistic forebears: his collage works are dotted with images of Pre-Colombian masks and potteries; cut-outs which resemble the late work of French artist Henri Matisse; along broad references to the work of Japanese-American artist Isamu Noguchi, photomontage of the early 20th century, and iconographies from throughout world religions.
The visual promiscuity of Mar’s practice finds itself fostered by the site-responsive context of this exhibition at the Mattress Factory. The institution’s late founder, Barbara Luderowski, was an avid collector of objects, and a wunderkammer (a cabinet of curiosities) sowed by her collecting activities now inhabits the top floor of the museum. Photographs from this diverse collection, which includes dolls, masks, and an array of Americana, are presented as part of the imagery of Mar’s custom-printed fabrics alongside images from throughout his career. In further dialogue between his practice and the space, Dragonfruit unfolds adjacent to the permanent installation of Greer Lankton’s work It’s all about ME, Not You, an exhibition that opened in 1996 shortly before the artist’s untimely death. This room-scale installation of Lankton’s work takes the form of a household interior, a parlor of sorts, inhabited by a series of unsettling and elaborately costumed dolls which autobiographically mirror the late artist’s own experience of gender transitioning. These dolls fall into a dialogue with Mar’s Paprikas, resonating between themselves the power of queer expression, the progress made in the twenty years between these bodies of work, and the work yet to be done.
Dragonfruit engages in world-building at a massive scale, where Paprikas serve as personified black holes that eat all that surrounds them only to expel it into the world as new matter. Mar collapses time into one continuous moment, threading past and present through his visual references and laying flat the entirety of his career between then and now. The exhibition encapsulates all things that have seeded Mar’s practice, an Encyclopedic Palace of the World, which puts on display the ordered chaos of Dragonfruit’s own creation.