Ursula von Rydingsvard

Ursula von Rydingsvard employs a consciously limited range of materials and techniques, working in cedar delivered to her studio in four-by-four-inch lengths. These milled modules are cut, gouged, and laminated together to form large elements that resemble walls, sheer cliffs, vessels, landscapes, simple dwellings, and tools. In spite of great fidelity to material and methodology, the significance of the work extends well beyond the refinements and curiosities of process to its revelatory potential. The arduous assembly and the al- most ungainly size of each sculpture evoke ideas that only emerge from a prolonged creative commitment: the days, weeks, and months of production. Each sculpture aggressively claims space and suggests psychological occupation. Indeed, the work is a homage to a childhood without the stability of home but sustained by deep, if sometimes strained, familial bonds.

Von Rydingsvard treats her material with a brusque pragmatism: there is nothing sentimental about cedar, with its rich, varied color or its aromatic, sensual presence, nor about her treatment of it; she inscribes the wood with deep incisions cut with a circular saw. She tears into the wooden beams and presses pieces together in brooding amalgamations reminiscent of both natural formations and architectural spaces. Frequently she paints and rubs powdered graphite on the wood to dull its natural qualities. The relentless methods, the repetitious labor required to make each piece, create a range of temporal associations. The sculpture evokes classical tradition, taciturn Modernist monumentality, and the accretive, additive, and mutable art of today.

The exhibition included interior and outdoor sculptures, selected from works of the last fifteen years, as well as four large pieces created for Storm King’s bucolic if highly manicured site. Land Rollers, 1992, is installed on the crest of a dramatic hill, a site that offers a panoramic view of the entire valley. Two parallel rails issue from ground level and extend out as if cantilevered from the site, supporting a series of large cut, notched, and textured logs. The installation implies a platform, an observation area from which to survey the gracious surroundings. By contrast, For Paul, 1990–92, is a freestanding object. Its silhouette suggests a slightly misshapen vessel, but its elevations tower above observers; access to the inside is denied. Simultaneously sublime and intimate, its scored, obsessively manipulated surface invites a close engagement that contradicts its awesome scale.

The artist often produces subtle counterpoints to these more monumental pieces. Paul’s Shovel, 1987, a small, sturdy object hung from a wall, like a worn and encrusted implement, suggests a history of human labor dedicated to unending, repetitive tasks.

Spanning both time and place, von Rydingsvard’s sculpture is a tribute to the idea of work—both physical and intellectual. That such expansive, eternal ideas can be communicated through measured, persistent means endows the work with unusual intellectual and psychological tenacity.

Patricia C. Phillips