Jennifer McNeely
Gulassa & Co., 10 Dravus St, 283-1810.
Through Jan 12 (closed Christmas week).

Weldon Butler
Mithun, Pier 56, 623-3344.
Through Jan 10.

Jennifer McNeely's new work is displayed in a big, chilly room that is, unexpectedly, a beautiful room for art. It has gray, slightly green concrete walls that are a perfect still counterpoint for her lively, alert sculptures. This room is part of Gulassa & Co., a metal and furniture fabricating company where McNeely's husband, Stefan Gulassa (brother of the late artist David Gulassa, who died in a kayaking accident last year) is a designer, and also houses a press, a kiln, and some other kind of machine, I forget what.

These new sculptures, like her previous work, are fleshy--most often foam stuffed into nylon, which is unsettlingly lifelike even at its most abstract. McNeely's work has always contained a studied balance between (and neat contradiction of) ladylike and dangerous, often zaftig objects straining against various constraints--zippers, corsets, their own abundance. It is impossible to escape a kind of vicarious discomfort, that of flesh caught in a zipper, for instance, or of being faced with something distinctly vaginal (not so uncomfortable for me, but some men are easily queased).

Many of these elements are still present in her new work--along with the pointed humor that has been there all along. One of my favorite pieces is a pink roll of flesh tied tightly at the middle with a piece of rubber and a tire valve. The result looks like a pair of ears, and what flows out of them, ostensibly created by whatever blowhard made use of that valve, are oceans of excess rubber, spilling out onto the floor and beyond.

This may or may not be explicitly feminist imagery--I know plenty of men who are passive receptacles for women's chatter--but much of the other work is unabashedly so (coy little vulval shapes, here overflowing out of two bra cups sewn together).

But there's something new at work. As with weather prediction, or calculus, what an artist's new work means often isn't as important as how it's changed. There's a new feeling to this work: kind of wistful, kind of historical, kind of gentle. More and more McNeely reminds me of the late German artist Eva Hesse, who in the hard-edged '70s wrapped, strung, and bunched her materials, making sculptures that felt biological, both frightening and warm, a smart answer back to the serious minimalism of all those serious metal-using (and male) sculptors.

McNeely is funnier than Hesse, and also more explicit, but she shares that double-edged warmth. I loved a pair of objects called Ladies: feathers packed into nylons and curved back on themselves, like preening swans or big bedroom slippers. Then, there's a triptych--Wait (foam in nylon, vulnerable fur spilling out, like someone trying pathetically hard to impress); Wait Less (The Bride) (lavender batting folded smugly into a white pillbox-style hat); Way Less (The Widow) (batting hidden behind a veil and a cataract of black thread, spilling cautiously like restrained grief)--that suggests, in eloquent shorthand, a woman's history of her own flesh, and the various ways that are chosen for her to expose and hide it.

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Weldon Butler, another longtime Seattle artist without regular gallery representation, is showing a series of new paintings and prints in the office of an interior design firm. He's shown at least once before in an architect's office, which is appropriate, since Butler's visual vocabulary has a lot of the blueprint about it: lines and intersections and shapes that suggest a plan for something grand never built.

These new works take as their central motif a kind of loosely brushed brown, which matches exactly the pressed wood-chip floor of the open-plan office in which they are shown. It would be a gimmick if it weren't beautifully balanced with the single black line here, the mash of black brushstrokes there. These works have a restrained Asian-scroll feel, especially the narrow vertical ones, and the simple black floor-plan paintings are lovely in that mysterious way (as only occasionally happens for me with abstract art) that gets you where you live, and you have no idea why.

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