Anne Mudge

at Roy Boyd Gallery, through January 31

Anne Mudge is one of a growing number of artists for whom nature’s forms are a primary inspiration. Her five hanging sculptures at Roy Boyd Gallery, made of wire and wax and lead sinkers, are exquisitely delicate, even airy. The wires curve organically: one thinks of the veins in a leaf, the roots of a tree. Yet each work also acknowledges human activity and thought.

Constellation begins with a thin wire suspended from the wall, washers spaced irregularly down it; from them bundles of thin wires spray out in all directions, almost chaotically, coming together to form a complex cloud of curved wires. This cloud contains and supports a structure of thicker, darker steel rods, like the pieces of an erector set formed into a bent construction crane. Most of these rods meet at right angles, seemingly held together by translucent gray blobs of melted plastic. This design encourages different kinds of looking. The curved wires lead the eye every which way, unpredictably, and they’re so thin one is always aware of the air surrounding them. Yet inevitably they lead to the almost rectilinear erector shapes–to the opposition between airy and solid, curved and straight, organic and Euclidean.

The title suggests another interpretive possibility: the light-filled plastic blobs are stars, and the erector rods are the imaginary lines drawn by humans who “created” constellations out of arbitrary groupings of stars. While at first the “constellation” visually dominates the curved wires around it, it’s also held up by them. The artificial structures we impose on nature and build out of its materials are based on the organic principles that give us life.

Human life seems threatened in Pneuma. From a long, Slinkylike shape (with pentagonal coils) hangs a complex structure of thin stainless steel wire, on one side splayed chaotically, on the other outlining little saclike cells of similar shape and size. This “lung” is an exquisite mixture of repetition and variation: no two sacs are identical, but each seems to mirror the adjacent ones. The wires are so thin one can view the whole three-dimensional shape at once; at all levels new honeycomb designs replace the previous ones. The effect is a bit like a hologram, but the lung doesn’t keep the same shape as one walks slowly around it the way a hologram would. The specifics change, yet each new view seems another version of the last. Nature, for Mudge, is a force whose principle of repetition and variation precedes all the human constructions we have imposed on the world.

And just as all is not well in the human world, so this lung seems diseased. The wires are darkened with asphaltum, and a few of the lower ones are thickly coated with wax, also occasionally darkened. “As a lung picks up this blackness,” Mudge said of Pneuma, “it also picks up mucous.”

Born outside of Pittsburgh when the mills were still active, Mudge remembers a childhood of spectacular orange white skies. While she found these mill fumes beautiful, she also remembers seeing the stream and woods near her home gradually polluted and ruined by development. She’s lived for ten years now on a seed farm outside San Diego; for the first few years there, she and her husband also kept bees–and Pneuma resembles a beehive. For about a year, they had no electricity: if the postmodern artist often takes television and related media as sources of material and inspiration, Mudge’s art is based on her own direct encounters with natural forms. She has spoken of the careful, even obsessive handcrafting of her pieces as an attempt to “counter the predominant way that most objects are made in our world….I seem to be enacting an incantation of sorts against all of the mirrored forms in our society.”

But she does not simply mirror the forms of nature either. Vestige, the largest piece in the show, at first suggests a human skeleton, and on close examination reveals complex relations between its parts, but that same close examination reminds the viewer that the piece is made of wire. Down the center hangs a line of lead sinkers resembling vertebrae. On either side of them hang thick cables with smaller wires extending horizontally between them; the two cables closest to the “spine” are attached to the sinkers with these wires. Each cable is itself made up of many of the wires: spreading apart slightly, they’re revealed for an inch or two before reconverging. Each cable sends off some of its parts horizontally, which join the next cable, which a little further down sends off more parts.

One critic aptly notes a resemblance to the circulatory system in Vestige, but I found it impossible to forget the lead sinkers’ intended use in fishing or to ignore the materials: manufactured, inorganic metal. The work is less an image of nature than a record of what the imagination can make of cables and lead. The way cables come apart and reform describes a process that is at its most complex in an ecosystem, in which organisms couple, feed on one another, and break apart. But some industrial materials are constructed on a similar principle–the cables Mudge uses gain their strength from being spun of many smaller wires. As in her other works, the intersection of the organic and the mass-manufactured, nature and the human, gives this piece much of its richness.

The same is true of the most perfect of these five, Limbus. A thin metal chain hangs in a semicircle created by an attached structure of interlaced aircraft cables. All 14 of these are unwound into seven smaller cables, each of which is in turn unwound into the seven smaller wires that form it; this dense, sinuous forest of wires recombines into about 20 thicker cables that are then unwound and recombined again. Twice the wires approach the density of capillaries or roots, and twice they are rebound together; the juxtaposition of the organic and of “man-made” closure suggests the presence of the artist’s hand. Of course smaller forms also come together to make larger ones in nature–Mudge reminded me that plants wind around other plants, for instance, and rivulets can form a stream–but the almost rhythmic beauty of the final rootlike cables convinces us we’re in an art gallery, not browsing a botany textbook.

An elusive poetic quality informs these works. Four of the five are installed so that their shadows are visible on the wall just behind them; blowing gently on the edge of any of them causes them and their shadows to slowly rotate. Less sharp than the sculptures themselves, the shadows give each piece a kind of aura.

The apparent contradictions Mudge sets up don’t represent conflicts so much as balances achieved. However much she may prefer natural to human structures, the erector shape at the center of Constellation is every bit as compelling as the cloud of wires surrounding it. Disparate elements exist in a kind of equilibrium; these works don’t pose or answer questions but simply assert–the way a plant or animal might–the authenticity of their own being.