Massive in scale, intimate to the touch

by Eleanor Heartney

Ursula von Rydingsvard’s Damski Czepek settles into the landscape as if it were part of the natural geology. Created of polyurethane resin, a translucent material that allows for the passage of light, it changes with the seasons and the times of day. At times it suggests a grotto of natural stone laid bare by years of erosion. At others it could be a glistening ice formation, an illusion reinforced during the winter months when it is surrounded by snow and ice.

The work’s title suggests one of von Rydingsvard’s sources of inspiration. Meaning ‘ladies’ bonnet’ in Polish, damski czepek is a phrase that harks back to the artist’s childhood spent in Polish labor and refugee camps in Germany during and after the Second World War. One can imagine the rising brow as the cap of the bonnet and the rivulets that run along the ground as meandering ribbons. But equally, it feels like a cave, a small theater or a makeshift shelter. Originally created for New York City’s Madison Square Park Conservancy, where it presided over a small urban park flanked by tall buildings, Damski Czepek here is transplanted to a more natural site where it takes advantage of the gentle slope of the ground.

Damski Czepek, like all von Rydingsvard’s sculptures, is full of contradictions. Though massive in scale, it remains intimate to the touch. Despite its monumentality, the sculpture retains associations with the humble objects of the domestic sphere. Its construction is based on serial units in the manner of minimalist art, but it has the wild, organic quality of a living thing, suggesting a form that has grown up of its own accord or has been shaped by natural forces of wind or water.

These qualities stem from von Rydingsvard’s devotion to her materials. The vast majority of her works are created from wood, although she occasionally uses industrial substances like polyurethane resin, as here, or, for an upcoming project, bronze. But even when the sculptures employ these anomalous materials, they retain the quality of hand-hewn wood because that is how each work begins. Von Rydingsvard’s basic building block is a uniform plank of smoothly planed cedar. Boards are arranged in layers that may rise as much as eight feet above the ground. However, the forms she creates are very different from those of colleagues like George Sugarman and Ronald Bladen, who were her instructors at Columbia University in the early 1970s, or sculptors like Carl Andre and Donald Judd, who also built their work out of uniform units of some industrially available material. Von Rydingsvard disavows the hands-off factory-made look of minimalist sculpture. Instead of creating works that aspire to be architectural or speak to the power of the industrial age, she draws her inspiration from humbler sources – creating abstract forms that contain echoes of handmade items like lace collars, ladies’ bonnets, bowls, plates, ladles and vessels. In her hands, horizontal layering suggests the exposure of earth strata, while vertical layers emphasize the pull of gravity as if the pieces of wood were flowing like water down a rock wall.

To create her evocative forms, von Rydingsvard exploits the properties of cedar, the soft wood that has been her primary material since she was first handed some cedar beams by a fellow student in 1975. Cedar is supple, yielding itself, under the spell of a circular saw wielded like a carving knife, to her characteristically irregular surfaces. Von Rydingsvard builds the larger works in pieces, taking advantage of the visible seams between the pieces of wood to further emphasize the surface texture. To create Damski Czepek, she had to add several more steps – covering the wooden version of the piece with pink rubber and plaster reinforced with steel to create a mold into which the polyurethane resin could be poured. It was the first time she had used this material and it is one of the largest objects ever created in this manner. Translated from wood into resin, this monumental form becomes surprisingly airy and light.

Accompanying Damski Czepek are a selection of smaller gallery-scale works all composed of cedar. They suggest the range of effects von Rydingsvard has managed to achieve with this simple material – the sculptures evoke tall vessels, bowls, necklaces and plates. They share a sense of rugged materiality in which the process of their making is fully evident.

In the end, there is something disconcerting about von Rydingsvard’s sculptures- they are undeniably beautiful, but there is also something fierce and uncompromising in their embrace of an aesthetic of rawness. Given to rough edges and undisguised seams, these sculptures revel in the jagged gouge of the circular saw and the uneven shifts of color as the cedar ages. They have an almost primitive quality, offering a reminder of the wildness that culture and civilization cannot eradicate.

Von Rydingsvard persistently explores childhood experiences, emphasizing the quiet drama of family connections. She also chronicles the emotional attachments to one’s environment and the dignity of hand labor and hand tools. Although her sculptures are nonrepresentational and avoid literalism, they function, says one critic, as “a connector between abstraction and the world of real things.” Making reference to all kinds of everyday objects and architectural constructions, von Rydingsvard’s work evokes barns, sheds, barracks, pews, altars, shovels, bowls, and spoons – even the human body. Much of its impact derives from the authority and intensity of feeling, but each piece is enriched as well by the contrast between a monolithic scale and an intimacy of detail. This commanding fusion of austerity, spirituality and emotional force grabs you at once.

Sculpture at Pilane. 2009, Pilane Heritage Society, Sweden.
© 2009 Eleanor Heartny. All Rights Reserved.