“Why do I make art?
Mostly, to survive.
To survive living in all its implied layers.
Because I see life as being full of abominations.
Because life is full of marvels close to miracles.
And also because I want to get answers to questions for which I know there are no answers.”
– Why Do I Make Art
Ursula von Rydingsvard[i]
Stepping off the elevator, the quietness embraces you. It is as though the silent sentinels around you absorb sound waves from the air, slowing time and giving you the space for quiet contemplation. Perhaps an odd first observation in a room full of visual grandeur, but certainly a welcome respite from the street life just outside. The Contour of Feeling, Ursula von Rydingsvard’s first major solo exhibition in Washington, DC, encourages these momentary pauses, welcoming slow, lingering gazes across the totems’ rugged surfaces. In Rydingsvard’s world, notions of contour take on multiple permutations, both concrete and ethereal. These totems engage us like intimate paramours, enticing us with their surface texture while simultaneously probing our inner emotional landscape. The feeling is at once both slightly uncomfortable and just a bit wondrous.
While known internationally for public, outdoor sculptural works that dwarf the human figure, this survey of von Rydingsvard’s recent work (the majority of which were produced in the last ten years) gives viewers a more complete picture of her artistic musings. While cedar wood predominates, disparate materials ranging from plaster to cow intestines are subtly incorporated into the final forms. In addition to sculptures, nine smaller-scaled works hang on the gallery walls like layers of shed skin sloughed off the larger sculptures around them. Organized by the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia, PA, the exhibition also includes a giant leather jacket created during her 2017 residency at the organization. The exhibition is not intended as a retrospective nor is it presented chronologically. Rather, it is conceived to highlight her studio works and staged in a meandering fashion that suggests an ever changing emotional landscape.
As the artist works, each unique balancing of solid form and flowing shape begins its life as a humble four inch by four inch plank of Canadian cedar. For her, the attraction is obvious and lies in “the softness, the sexiness, [and] the ease you can cut it. The more I work with it, the more I want to see what it can do.”[ii] Working from initial ideas sketched directly on the studio floor, the planks are joined together in a solid mass and the cutting begins. Von Rydingsvard’s description of the process suggests a journey with endless forks in the road, where one cut directly informs the next one adjacent, as the work begins to take shape. Indeed the very nature of the work can change midway through the process. OCEAN VOICES (2011-2) for instance was first conceived as a standing vessel but was completed as some kind of primordial animal form that seems to undulate horizontally across the gallery floor.
While von Rydingsvard’s process produces sculptures with surfaces seemingly more organic than man made, works from very early in her artistic exploration display more studied uniformity. Untitled (Nine Cones) (1976), the oldest work in the exhibition dates from the artist’s student days at Columbia University and serves as a touch point from which to view the arc of her career. The title also succinctly sums up the work: nine relatively uniform cones arranged in a grid-like pattern. Curator Mark Rosenthal notes that von Rydingsvard came of age at a time when minimalism was the dominant art theory and calculated geometric formulations reigned supreme. Though demonstrating a sense of uniformity, Untitled softens that sense of geometry and as such suggests the artist’s shift to a post-minimalist aesthetic[iii]. While those distinctions may sound academic, the visual contrasts between Untitled and its nearby neighbor Droga (2009) could not be more stark.
Where Untitled is somewhat formalistic, Droga roils the landscape, injecting both life and a sense of motion into solid wood. At over 18 feet in length, this is perhaps the most animal-like work on in the show. One end rises from the floor, suggesting muscles lifting a head from the ground, while the “tail” end explodes outward in a series of cascading entrails. There is a whiff of the grotesque balanced by a sense of beauty—pain tempered by hope. Life is reborn from felled timber, its abraded surface once again calling forth that mystical energy that transformed a tiny seed into a towering tree. Droga exists outside the taxonomy of the known world, simultaneously existing as an inert object and kinetic force. The dichotomy between these two poles is not lost on the artist; rather, it represents the very crux of her artistic inquiry.
This teetering between planes of existence – between worlds of opposing forces—carries into the more monolithic sentinels seen elsewhere in the exhibition. Ocean Floor, an early work from 1996 resembles a hollow vessel resting on the floor. At thirteen feet in length, its grand scale and rough surface negates any practical use as a functional object. Rather, it serves as a study of contrasts: solidity versus emptiness; formal shape versus roughhewn texture; even notions of masculine versus feminine, where the vaguely testicular appendages counteract the overall bowl-like shape of the piece, like two hands cupped in a supplicating offering. Over time, von Rydingsvard’s shapes have transitioned, emphasizing height over internal structure. Works like Krypta I (2014) and Tak (2015) are still nominally vessels, but their scale — towering over our heads — means we cannot make out the cavity at their center. Instead, attention is first drawn to the almost vertiginous massing of the wood medium (which might topple at any moment) then to the surface texture that suggests the eroding of time. This sense of erosion carries over to works hung on the wall, including thread terror (2016) and Collar with Dots (2008), which share similar visual characteristics to the more prodigious sculptures in the middle of the gallery.
Paper-based work might initially seem to be an abrupt departure from the solid forms that dominate the gallery; walking in blind, you might assume you are entering a two-artist exhibition. Yet closer reflection shows that these more demure-scaled works approach the same artistic quandaries from a different visual perspective. little nothings (2000-2015) serves as a gateway to the works on paper in two fundamental ways. First, it visually positions three-dimensional objects into a two-dimensional setting, in some ways mimicking the more subtle textures seen on the surface of the handmade linen paper. On an emotional level, the work presents cast-off ephemera as receptacles of emotional power. This use of ephemeral materials is evident in works such as Untitled (2016), in which the artist incorporates a cotton scarf, and Untitled (2017) in which she weaves hair into the work’s surface. Composed with various levels of opacity, the eye is drawn to the linear qualities of the work, where movement is delineated in either vertical or horizontal striping (occasionally both). While these recall the post-minimal aesthetic to which curator Rosenthal alluded, they also suggest minute organic details. Could these be microscopic samples taken from the larger, free-standing works? The artist leaves this up to the viewer, but it is safe to say that our complex emotional relationship to the passage of time is at play.
PODERWAĆ (2017) stands apart visually from both artistic approaches. It is of a scale similar to the vessel forms yet composed of a completely different material. Here von Rydingsvard has dissembled dozens of leather jackets culled from flea markets and thrift stores, uniting them into a “new” jacket over ten feet high. Though materially different, the work presents a similar methodology in her approach to sculpture. Functionally it is outsized in scale (therefore unwearable) and composed of a multitude of individual pieces. The blue strips in the work may also remind the viewer of the wooden shims within the cedar sculptures that help create a sense of movement. On an emotional level, this work weaves together the cast-off ephemera from hundreds of lives; that it can exist in the present is solely due to these anonymous pasts. As such, it represents a new attempt to answer the same quandaries pondered by works in paper and wood.
Attempting various approaches to artmaking is an existential exercise for the artist—a means of trying to understand our place in the universe and provide answers to questions we have yet to consider. It is a prodigious effort, one requiring patience and fortitude in equal measure. The works themselves demonstrate that fortitude, reaching and stretching in multiple dimensions as if attempting to spout new, budding branches into the ether. Far from problematic, this lack of clarity enhances the visual spectacle. The artist notes, “Art doesn’t really have a clear explanation…. You have to submit to the artwork, yield to it. That’s the good news about art. It’s like soul, like the soul.”[iv] Stand in front of these monoliths, she seems to say, and know there is a deeper, richer part of the universe beyond the visual spectrum waiting to be explored.
[i] Excerpted from Ursula von Rydingsvard’s poem, “Why Do I Make Art” in The Contour of Feeling, Exhibition Catalogue, The Fabric Workshop and Museum and Hirmer Publishers, Philadelphia-Munich, 2018, p. 7.
[ii] Quote from Ursula von Rydingsvard, exhibition press preview, Washington, DC, March 20, 2019.
[iii] Noted by exhibition curator Mark Rosenthal, exhibition press preview.
[iv] Exhibition Catalogue, p. 18.