Some people think that viewing art is an intellectual or an academic exercise, that you should leave the gallery with a headful of insight. And that's one way to appreciate it. But you can also experience it the way you listen to music. You know the feeling of playing an album that reaches every cell in your body and makes you feel better about your place in the world? Visual art can be like that, too.
When that happens, as it did for me when I saw sculptor Ellen Wishnetsky-Mueller's show Material Witness, it bypasses the brain entirely. During my final lap through the gallery, my partner asked me why I loved one of the pieces so much. After thinking hard about it, I said, "I have no idea. I just do."
Wishnetsky-Mueller is a minister of opposites, bringing together the inflexibility of metal with the malleability of textiles, marrying the dull and the shiny, the masculine and the feminine, the rusted and the pristine. Her work feels visceral because it embodies the contrasting natures in all of us.
Slow, Hot, Wind II, a small-scale monochromatic piece that hangs unassumingly on the wall at Jeffrey Thomas Fine Art, is a perfect example of antithetical beauty. A sheet of grey steel, folded over itself, traps a piece of gray felt in frozen undulation. Where the steel is rigid, rectilinear and sharp, the felt is kinetic, rounded and soft, appearing to move in rippling waves. Even the choice of color supports the dichotomy, with the warm gray of the fabric offsetting the blue-gray cool of the metal. The grip of the steel, which holds the felt in place, seems to both stifle the fabric and to allow for its free expression, another example of opposing forces.
Two tall aluminum half-cylinders sandwich folds of tulle between them in Eclipse. Get close and you can see your fuzzy reflection in the inner curve of its concave silver surface, as the gold textile billows outward, muted and diaphanous, from the shiny pristine edge of the metal. The piece transports you from the terrestrial to the cosmic.
Across the room, a rusted steel grid pins virgin wool to the wall, forcing it flat at the center, but unable to prevent it from spilling out the sides in downy tufts. The metal exerts its influence on the textile, but cannot contain its will.
A neat stack of gray felt sheets stands on a nearby pedestal, topped by a sheet of steel. This is where Wishnetsky-Mueller displays a virtuosic understanding of her materials. Compressed within the large, thick stack, in slightly varying shades of gray, the felt appears to harden into layers, like strata of sedimentary rock fixed in the geologic record. Wishnetsky-Mueller manipulates the steel's edge by folding and rippling it, causing it to take on the quality of fabric. She maintains the contradiction of materials, but reverses them—the textile now immutable, the metal fluid.
Standing in the gallery, you can feel the decay of rust eating through steel, the newness of raw wool, the passage of time represented in the slow settling of the earth. You can feel the rigidity of death and the fluidity of life. In capturing these irrepressible forces, Wishnetsky-Mueller communicates something about the cycles of nature and the organizing principles of the universe. The show takes you through the tracks of our existence, like a good mixtape, cathartic and transformational. It isn't something you have to think about.
SEE IT: Ellen Wishnetsky-Mueller's Material Witness is at Jeffrey Thomas Fine Art, 2219 NW Raleigh St., 503-544-3449. Through Oct. 29.