Sheila Held Attempts a ‘Unified Theory’ Across Time and Space

By Shane McAdams

February 21, 2023

Sheila Held’s attempts at a unified theory—in her exhibition of the same name—appear successful enough from the digital announcement of The Green Gallery exhibition, “Attempts at a Unified Theory” (through March 5). Superficially, the images of her colorful, painterly compositions backlit by RGB plasma are of a coherent formal piece. When meeting them in person at The Green Gallery, however, simple unity gives way to an expanded and complicated set of relationships across time and space, before coalescing back into a dazzling singularity of artistic vision. 

Gaps in continuity continue to open up as the work unfolds. If Held’s pieces could pass as paintings on a computer screen, such misidentification seems laughable in person. Her brightly colored wool, silk, and cotton weavings have a strong painterly sensibility, but they are finally so organic, tangibly particular, and technically unique that the discrepancy—the gap that is—winks almost knowingly. 

The most recent and one of the larger works in the show, The Rocket Dreams of the Mother Ship (2022), features an aerial landscape obsessively assembled from wool and silk weft on cotton warp. It’s a complex and colorful scene to pull off as a woven tapestry, made by hand, from back to front, one thread at a time. One doesn’t usually think of rocket ships and modernist buildings when they think of hand-woven imagery. Rockets are fast and futuristic, weaving wool is slow and ancient. So naturally our expectations are more in the direction of armored horsemen and unicorns than outer space. 

That gap between subject matter and process continues beautifully in other works as well. The unlikeliness of her subject matter tends to stymie the viewer, which in turn encourages them to probe further into the content, the material, and ultimately the process itself. Take Evolution, from the ‘Origins’ series—one of a number of ongoing series from which Held’s works originate. It depicts what appears to be a rising staircase occupied by a strange humanoid creature being observed by an iguana. What are either insects, aliens, viruses, or robots crawl menacingly in the upper left. Meanwhile, as one tries to decode this bizarre arrangement, the work’s fibrous surface inhales enough light for its raw material to overtake the imagery, finally forcing the particulars of content to coalesce into a larger universal body. Material yields to process, and a gap opens between what and how. 

Considering the “how” naturally leads one to the element of time. Held’s works are measured, intricate, and durational, with every plied fiber an atomic unit that’s simultaneously contributing to another form across a different dimension. The artistic version of quantum entanglement? Additionally, the works in the show span over three decades and somehow seem guided by a united temporal motivation. Held’s version of General Relativity? Perhaps, and as such questions fill the gaps in time, space, and material, her universe continues to evolve. 

Considering the galactic associations of the show, three framed schematic cartoons diagramming works in the show end up seeming like ancient, magical plans for a parallel universe. They feel original, infinite, and sacred. Such strange evocation says a lot about strength and complexity of the exhibition those blueprints helped generate. That the gridded preliminary plans remain loose and only partially faithful to the actual objects they encoded takes the cosmic metaphor a step further. Held is surely aware that there’s still no unified theory governing matter, time, and space. She also knows that there’s no single objective rule guiding the creation of art. And she surely knows that these contradictions and uncertainties themselves are the very battery cells propelling the never-ending search for all creative destinies.