Cheryl Pope on the love, representation and comfort of textile art

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Artist Cheryl Pope says her work has always dealt with vulnerability. But the New York-based artist took that on a personal level for the first time by placing her own body in her work. The new semi-nude series showing Pope and her partner in roving wool can now be seen in her hometown of Chicago, in the solo exhibition Basking Never Hurt No One at the Monique Meloche Gallery (until August 17).

“It’s a direct reflection of my immediate life,” Pope says. “It’s really about my response to what it’s been like to be in a biracial relationship, the way it moves in the world – its vulnerability,” Pope said.

“The story is really celebrated right now [in art], and I try to move in the space between abstraction and storytelling, ”Pope says. “Too tight of a story only remains my story; if it could be a little abstract or looser it could turn into a story that a lot of people can connect with. “

Cheryl Pope, Woman and Man Lying on a Striped Rug VII (2019) Courtesy of the artist and Monique Meloche Gallery, Chicago

The heads of Pope and his partner are not visible in his works, which show a tangle of torsos and legs, with a feeling of both lively energy and comfortable familiarity. The figures are set against ambiguous and colorful backgrounds – geometric zigzags, irregular red and pink stripes resembling zebras, large articulated tropical leaves in yellow and green – and “you’re not sure this [space] is interior [or] exterior, ”said the Pope.

“There’s a little bit of humor in the way they’re articulated, they’re playful,” Pope says. Indeed, there is something joyful about nudes, and the way the bodies are drawn imbues them with a naive frankness.

Cheryl Pope, Woman and Man Lying on Striped Carpet V (2019) Courtesy of the artist and Monique Meloche Gallery, Chicago

To make the works, Pope fills cartoon drawings with pre-dyed wool fibers, which she then presses with a needle-shaped tool through a layer of cashmere wool-blend fabric on foam. The wick of wool and the fabric bind together through this process, which Pope likens to fear of the hair. “It’s still so bodily,” she says of the materials.

Pope attributes the current popularity of textile pieces to the anxiety and pain of the present moment, and a physical disconnect in wrestling with it. Textiles are “the first thing around us when we come out of the womb and it’s on us every day,” she says. “I think visually we’re heading towards that because we need warmth, we need to be loved. Again, we need that fabric wrapped around us.

Despite the material and the technique of this new series of works, “I speak of it like paintings”, says Pope. Placed in shadowbox frames, “they are not folded up, they are not hung on the wall like canvases”. This places the works in a historical art context that also allows for a discussion of race and representation. “I wanted to [the series] be part of the history of painting, ”says Pope. “If I had a child, they would see people on the board who look like mom and dad in the same space, [not] the whites in one space and the blacks in another space.

“The work I did before was about equality, race, injustices and safe spaces,” says Pope, who also wrote about gun violence in Chicago. She says it was sad for her to do these works and to witness them in an exhibition, “because it was really confrontational around the trauma of youth in Chicago.” The new works “always deal with these same problems”, The Pope says, “but he tries to get there out of love”.

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