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Meredith Connelly’s ‘Umbra’ explores the boundaries of site-specific art

At Cornelius Arts Center, there is a cloud emerging from the wall. The giant white thunderhead dominates the room; a clap, stomp, shriek or exuberant laugh elicits fiery lightning flashes. Ominous points and spikes reach out as if sculpted by wind.

In “Umbra,” artist Meredith Connelly transforms ordinary materials into something extraordinary in a fun, interactive piece whose illusion of power leaves a lasting impression. This is good, thoughtful art and evidence of curator and manager Jen Crickenberger’s strong exhibition programming.

The title of the work, which is the same as the exhibition, comes from one of three parts of a shadow, referring to the darkest part where the light source is blocked. After Connelly’s cloud sparks with lightning, its unlit form sits dark and dull.

A native of Wilmington, Connelly has created biologically-based site-specific installations for five years. She uses interactive elements, unorthodox but common materials.

In “Umbra,” common is defined as wax paper, twist ties, fishing line and tube lighting. Together these elements create an object that shudders and ripples with a touch, more like a fabric than the light, airy form it emulates.

Connelly constructed the piece over five days with help from gallery staff. She began by looping the tube lights and securing them with twist ties. Next, she glued sections of wax paper to the skeleton and around it, crumpling them as she worked to ensure uneven, cloud-like light emissions. Lengths of taut fishing line tied to beams, poles and hanging pipes pull the piece into its points.

The interactive component is sound sensitivity: The reaction to bangs, stomps and squeals is sporadic pulsing flashes. This component makes the piece more engaging and likeable for even the most indifferent visitors (even inspiring a child to belt out music from Disney’s “Frozen” at a recent visit). This responsive element was demonstrated during the May 17 opening, when opera singer Kelly Hutchinson performed, her trills sparking the gallery with erratic flares.

This piece shows how art can attack the senses and appear powerful. Light appeases the eye but its patterning is a shock; ears ring with claps and shrieks that spark the flashes. Connelly the illusionist overtakes the senses and convinces visitors of the real power of art.

Two-dimensional work and small objects fill the rest of the room and serve as footnotes to the dominating “Umbra.” From them visitors come to appreciate the biological source of all the work.

The artist’s “Pods,” melted CD cases halfheartedly wrapped around natural objects, are worth a look: a feather, peach pit, bark and other items are individually covered in what looks like delicate glass. They sit on a white narrow pillow lit from beneath with a fluorescent light, ripe for scientific observation.

Lining the walls, Connelly’s spray painted paper cuts are sandwiched between two panes of glass like slides for a giant microscope. These vary in size, with drips and gradations in iridescent color thanks to a liberal spray paint job pre-exacto knife. Some cuts are sharp and angular, like “Adrenaline Crystals”; in “Neurotransmission,” globs punctuate stretched, thin arms to mimic brain cells. Again, nice enough, but faded in the shadow of “Umbra.”

“Umbra” will hit the road soon, stopping at the UNC Charlotte Rowe Gallery this summer with another operatic collaboration with Hutchinson. As the artist transports the piece, it will deteriorate, developing patchy holes and revealing a mechanical core. The illusion of power will deconstruct and weaken, though the piece will retain its ability to surprise and delight.

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