Order Around Us: A Review of Sheila Held’s “Attempts at a Unified Theory” at the Green Gallery

Us humans have been trying to figure out what it all means for a long time. Science, religion and cosmology have all taken a crack at it, with varying success. Sheila Held’s interest in the patchwork of explanations that humanity has come up with are on brilliant display at the Green Gallery in Milwaukee. Held doesn’t claim to have a unifying theory; she’s repeatedly attempting one. What she’s come up with is a collage of origins and explanations, ranging from the anatomical (eggs) to the extraterrestrial (aliens).

Her pieces are first drawn as schematics on light graph paper, three of which are framed and hanging on the gallery’s wall. Those sketches are turned into digital collages, then the collages are sent to the loom, where she hand-weaves intricate tapestries. Her movement between technologies pulls the viewer out of our current AI age, where it’s easy to forget that technology is not an end in itself. It is a tool to be used. The tactility of her textiles cannot be denied—whether they were rendered in a computer or not, these works were made by human hands. It’s evident in each skipped stitch and every loose end.

Pairing early internet visuals with the traditional, very bodily, craft of hand-weaving creates a fun disorientation. “Sabotage the Grid,” made in 1988, stands out in this aesthetic. Its roughly nine-by-twenty dark blue grid is criss-crossed with vibrant cellular-looking shapes—circles, chromosomes and the high-school-biology diagram of mitosis—along with poofy pink letters that spell the artwork’s name. The deep blue background and hot desert accents are reminiscent of a time when the internet still had a feeling of expansiveness.

Part of what’s remarkable about “Sabotage” is how comfortably it sits between “Touch Down” from 1995 and “Evolution” from 2018. Pulling over thirty years of tapestries might make for a destabilizing effect elsewhere, but Held’s work is—perhaps unsurprisingly—incredibly unified. The egg shape that floats above a bird-headed man (or a man-bodied bird?) appears in both 2020 (“The Hybrid Dreams of the Egg”) and 1993 (“Sunnyside Up”). There is a repetition of reptiles: omnipotent lizard creatures smirk at each other in “Guardians of the Secret” (2021); snakes descend from the sky in “Touch Down” (1995); and an iguana rears up on its hind legs in “Evolution” (2018).

In this sense, we’re not only looking at grand theories of the universe, we’re also in an individual’s grappling with questions of origin and unity. While cosmology can be fun, the more immediate task is finding one’s own common thread.

Each piece is scrupulously detailed, which paradoxically means that they are better viewed from afar. The farther the viewer steps back, the more cohesive the image. Move in toward it, and the colored threads blur to pixel-like nonsense. And maybe that’s the whole premise of the show. It’s not a huge leap of the imagination to think that maybe we’re all walking around with our noses pressed to some cosmological order, too occupied by minutiae to take a step back. Whether the show is an attempt at some universal alignment or just a reminder that technology should serve the viewer (so look up from your phone once in a while) it succeeds at both.