Stasis and Agitation

by Janet Koplos

Ursula von Rydingsvard’s large sculptures, laminated blocks of cedar carved into simple shapes with complicated surfaces, have a characteristic somberness. Faceted in abrupt, agitated planes or nearly shredded by freehand slices made with a circular saw, the exteriors are darkened with sprayed graphite and recall early Cubist painting.

Although she has developed a recognizable style, von Rydingsvard is not one to be pigeonholed. Surprisingly, her wood sculptures can endure outdoor exposure, and she is currently creating a piece made of resin, to be suspended over a bank of escalators in the atrium of a new courthouse in Jamaica, Queens. Still, no one knows her work would have dreamed that she’d devise a massive motorized sculpture. This unexpected work occupied an entire room in her spring show at Galerie Lelong in New York: within a 9-foot-tall metal armature, seven rows of five coarse wooden mortars placed on the floor received pendulous wooden pestles attached to offsetting crankshafts that allowed each to strike individually.

The piece seemed to operate in slow motion. In a softly lit environment pervaded by the sweet, sharp pungency of fresh cedar, each pestle dumbly rose and fell, lurching to the side, striking the wall of its mortar with a jarring, hollow thud. Each occupied its own place in a rhythmic din too complex to sort out. The work evokes an antiquated industrial machine, the slowness suggesting its imminent halt. At the same time, the thrust and withdrawal of the parts has a natural analogy to sexual intercourse. But the pestles’ movement, with its sense of weight and pause, is more suggestive of a pained body; the effect is not erotic but sorrowful. You might think of one foot sloggingly placed after the other, exhaustion refused by determination. This association may be supported by the cryptic title, Mama, your legs.

Von Rydingsvard’s sculptures are striking for their size, their roughness and their ability to evoke sensations in the viewer that seem to arise out of preverbal intelligence. Her textured masses never seem to be simply formalist constructions, even when viewers don’t know her history. In fact, her art is rooted in her childhood as a displaced person, born in 1942 to Polish/Ukrainian parents in a German work camp, the fifth of seven children. The family emigrated to the U.S. in 1950, and von Rydingsvard grew up in Connecticut. She started out as a painter, and she worked in metal before discovering wood’s aptness in her ends. She now creates her gallery pieces and commissions with a team of assistants at studios in Brooklyn and upstate New York.

Her works do not expostulate on art issues or complain about a difficult early life. Instead they are the equivalent of a clenched jaw. She adopts essential, timeless and largely impersonal forms: surrogates for the body such as hand tools, protective elements such as walls and functional domestic objects such as bowls. Bowl forms dominated her Lelong show.

Among the many cupped shapes was the broad, stable floor work bowl-in-a-bowl, nearly 4 feet high and an almost-round 6 1/2 by 7 feet across. This sculpture exploits the easy receptiveness of the vessel form, which we all know as an ancient and durable human invention for storage or display, its rounded involution traditionally associated with female contours. Here it is magnified and made fierce: the sculpture looks like two stacked bowls–if bowls can be rugged, heavy and huge (big enough to climb into).

The largest fixed sculpture at Lelong was a wall-like structure more than 8 feet tall and 10 feet wide, and a daunting 3 1/2 feet thick. At various points, usually head height or above, narrow gaps allow a mere glimpse into that mysterious front-to-back depth. You could also hide behind this mass: it was placed near a gallery wall, but far enough away to permit circumambulation. The title is surprising: the defensive bulwark is named 5 Open Bowls. Open? While the thick wall may have openings at the top, that’s higher than any viewer could see. Bowls? Even if the gaps are meant to define separate objects, the forms are more like columns than bowls. For that matter, the work seems less like five things than like one in the process of mitosis. The title makes viewers shift gears in evaluating the piece.

An example of her tool forms was the only sculpture in the show not made of laminated cedar. It is a simple wooden wall piece just under 10 feet tall that resembles a rustic rake. Hanging from the rows of teeth of Untitled Brush is a tangle of bleached-yellow strands that are neither hair nor hay, as you might expect, but rather dried cow gut. While the form is rigid, the fibrous linear fall is so fine and light that it responds to air currents.

It is typical of yon Rydingsvard to make contrary works, and not only in regard to their titles. Usually her sculptures are intimidating (dark, stiff, prickly, oversized), and yet they offer a hint of softness or a point of emotional accessibility. Her use of familiar imagery is one means to this end, as is the visible evidence of labor (those seams and cuts), which is understandable even to neophyte viewers. In public settings, it’s almost impossible to resist touching the minutely faceted surfaces of her sculptures, such as the 15-ton wooden Bowl with Folds, a Public Art Fund project currently installed at the southeast corner of Central Park. Passersby caress the bumps and explore the crevices of this tall, crimped pincushion shape–another twist of the term “bowl” since it has no openings visible from ground level.

Other surface markings that are a residue of the construction process also provide subtle points of interest, details that attract the eye and mind. Each form begins with cedar beams that are glued together before carving. The surplus glue oozes from the seams and remains visible on the finished piece. In addition, the blocks are marked with numbers or letters that might be an assembly code, dimensions or perhaps just working notations and calculations. The marks seem to carry meanings that can’t be translated. They evoke an unrecoverable past. All the various detailing makes the massive pieces seem almost to disassemble. A sense of surface agitation against an underlying stability is a richly metaphoric combination: the small things change, the big ones remain the same.

Out of the folds and gaps of von Rydingsvard’s sculptures creep thoughts, unspoken stories and intimations of places and things that stay with you. You can’t easily forget that massive machine. When it’s stopped, the air suddenly seems empty. The highest pestles swing aimlessly for a while, as if reluctant to let go.

Ursula von Rydingsvard’s work was shown at Galerie Lelong in New York [Mar. 10-Apr. 29, 2000]. Mama, your legs will be exhibited at the Butler Gallery in Kilkenny, Ireland, in late summer. Bowl with Folds remains at Doris C. Freedman Plaza in New York City through the spring. A large sculpture is on display in Cologne’s Sculpture Park until the end of the year, and two new works have been installed in Massachusetts, at the Williams College science building and at UMass Boston’s Arts on the Point.

Art in America. January 2001, pp. 86-88, 141.