Review: Attempts at a Unified Theory, Sheila Held at Green Gallery, Milwaukee

On The Ferry (from the Women and Water series) 2015. Wool, silk and metallic weft on cotton warp. 61 x 38 inches

I first met Sheila Held at a panel presentation I gave in 2014, and she invited me to her studio / home in Wauwatosa for dinner shortly thereafter. I bring this up precisely because of how inviting she and her work – the latter entirely comprised of narrative-alluding and large-scale tapestries – are, in their combination of art, artfulness, and (sometimes cutting political) philosophy on the one hand, an invitation of dialog, friendship, or even maternal kindness on the other. Her studio, too, is a kind of wondrous binary of new technologies and old world charm.

A mature but still emerging artist, Held’s process is fun and intriguing. She says she is not the best illustrator, but she spends evenings drawing with colored pencils anyhow, a mode of thought and generative production. Her images, however, begin from magazine spreads or photographs, where she scans them in and layers them as collage-forms that imply stories around water and people, science and magic, spirituality and the environment. She just… plays until she has something she likes, then enlarges the images to the size she wants (though at much lower resolution, so that the pixels become where she can work with yarn).

The space she does this in is almost the opposite of my own. Whereas I have computers and equipment everywhere, and a big open space for projection and interactivity, her computer is tucked in a corner, and a huge loom, uh… looms over you, wherever you go. It is a horizontal rather than upright loom, meaning the back of each tapestry she is working on is up, where Held cannot see the front, and she works on a lot of”faith” that her images will come out right – all the more scary, given that the pieces take months to produce.

And this, too, is a part of her work: time. Where so much of arts discussions these days are around relationality and participation, ephemerality and waste, Held points to signification and precision, monumentality and the sacred.

Eve and Lillith Do the Snake Dance (from the Origins series), 2017. Wool and silk weft on cotton warp.
61 x 39 inches

Attempts at a Unified Theory spans more than 20 years of work, from 1995 through to Eve and Lillith Do the Snake Dance, which was “fresh off the loom,” as Sheila told me. And they are, in a word, lush. John Riepenhoff, curator at the Green Gallery, says he really appreciates the painterly quality of Held’s work, that it has managed to rekindle his own interest in showing more contemporary art forms that are traditionally thought of as craft (he specifically names fibers and ceramics here).

In her latest work, Eve and Lilith (the latter Adam’s first wife) happily and sensuously dance together, in the center of the piece, surrounded by snakes and… are those prawns or grasshoppers? The “first two women” could be flapper girls, and they have not a care, nor a man, in their world. They brought their own snakes, after all… It feels celebratory of women’s rights and the ownership of their own bodies – in more ways than one – and playful around a personal politics that must take precedence over the country’s.

Sheila Held
Sacred Cow (from the Seductions series), 2006 Wool weft on cotton warp
38 x 48 inches

One of my favorites on the show, Sacred Cow, has almost nothing recognizable within it, and that is precisely its charm. To painstakingly spend so much time and energy producing a woven tapestry of abstract forms, alongside stories and histories from myth and legend and the bible, all a part of the rest of the exhibition, makes its affective appeal all the more potent.

And my partner’s favorite is at the top of this post: three women carrying pots on their heads across the water, trapped on their water boats, yet still implicitly moving across our visual field. It again has a sense of celebration and critique, and hails from Held’s Women and Water series. So, we should ask, what about women and water? Is this of interest because they are both fertile and life-giving? Dangerous yet inviting? Resonant, dispersing, self-propelling, and persistent? Fourteen works in all, there are so many stories to share and tell.

Sheila Held’s solo exhibition, Attempts at a Unified Theory, is at Green Gallery East until November 18th. The gallery is open Wednesday – Saturday, 2 – 6 pm.

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