Toxins and microbes and spores traveling through the air, wreaking havoc: It's a phenomenon as ancient as the great historic plagues and as current as ricin-laced letters. But put any of these fearsome agents under a microscope, and they take on a kind of beauty, their protein spikes and flagella fanning out like sprigs and blooms in a floral still life. Artist Brenda Mallory riffs on this conceit in her first solo show at Butters Gallery, Reiterations and Rifts. The reiteration referred to in that title comes from the series' origins in an installation Mallory created for Portland International Airport. Many of the current pieces are adapted from that exhibition, which managed to make the phenomenon of global pandemics beautiful.
The artist begins each work by dipping strips of canvas in hot, pigmented wax. After they dry and harden, she affixes them together with nuts and bolts, imparting a look that's simultaneously handcrafted and industrial. Wall sculptures in her Mechanics of Hither and Yon series are round, with steel spikes shooting out like the spokes radiating from an angel's halo. Look at them macrocosmically, and they could be a bouquet of flowers on your dinner table; microcosmically, they could be the salmonella lurking in your roasted chicken.
Strictly Ordered and Variable Order are irregular rectangles with long, vertical lines that recall bamboo shoots or chlorophyll under magnification. Installed on the gallery walls, they interact with their light sources, casting eccentric shadows. The round pieces and their linear counterparts complement one another, as do works in balming ecru and sinister black.
Mallory's themes—the amorality of nature and the jolie-laide creepy-crawlies teeming beneath the threshold of the naked eye—are similar to ideas explored by another artist on the Butters roster, David Geiser, whose work evokes the messy goop of digestion and lava flows. Like Geiser, Mallory ably negotiates the commingling of the ravishing and the ravaging, a task that in less-capable hands could come across as trite. But Mallory knows what she's doing, both materially and conceptually. Reiterations and Rifts is a sophisticated, thought-provoking show, gorgeous on the surface but more unsettling the deeper you delve. RICHARD SPEER.
SEE IT: Reiterations and Rifts is at Butters Gallery, 520 NW Davis St., second floor, 248-9378. Through June 29.