New York

Ursula von Rydingsvard

The crumbly, blackened edges of Ursula von Rydingsvard’s often monumental cedar sculptures suggest they may be composed of half-burned logs, but in fact they are hacked and chiseled wood rubbed with graphite. It is the sculptor, not fire, that has effected the transformation. Von Rydingsvard’s relation to her materials is subtle and complex, as sustained examination of any of her pieces soon reveals. Most are abstract, and all rely on the curious sculptural technique of chiseling down and reconstructing the wood. Some of the pieces reveal a conceptual engagement: at least one of the works in this recent show, the huge Doolin, Doolin 1995–97, is based on “letters written on the ground and built up until the actual word is effaced,” according to the press release to the show.

The sculptures in this show seemed even more massive than is usually the case in von Rydingsvard’s work: Doolin, Doolin, for instance, dominated the larger of two rooms. Von Rydingsvard’s work is scaled more for outdoor display. Indoors, it appeared so enormous as to seem a tour-de-force, which was surely not the sculptor’s intention: her work has always been about subtlety rather than grand gesture. But one benefit of seeing these works up close and in an enclosed space was the uncanny sense one gets of being near something almost alive. Standing next to Doolin, Doolin was, in its way, very much like standing next to a tough, wrinkly elephant.

Indoors, the mysterious scent of von Rydingsvard’s favored material, cedar, becomes pleasantly concentrated. All the works were composed primarily of beams of this wood (one sculpture in the show, Maglownica II, 1997, also featured cow intestine as a material). After cutting into a beam with a circular saw, von Rydingsvard matches and glues the pieces, sometimes doweling layers together to give the work added solidity. The outer surfaces are then heavily worked with carving tools to create rough cuts, incisions, and lacerations on the exposed surface. This surface is sprayed with adhesive and rubbed with graphite powder, and finally covered with laminate medium.

Von Rydingsvard’s sculptures suggest both toil and decay. In employing a basic, minimalist formal vocabulary—simplicity of form, repetition—and highly evocative, organic materials, her work in some ways calls to mind that of Joseph Beuys. And as Beuys would transform experience into a personal mythology, von Rydingsvard’s work is also linked to memory: as a child brought up in German refugee camps, the landscape she inhabited was charred and broken, with few prospects but endless, repetitive toil. By using an organic material, von Rydingsvard seems to be exploring the potential of her medium to represent transformations—those wrought by memory, by time, by human labor, and in some cases by language—mirrored in the transformations that come about (in wood) through splintering, fire, and decay. Her fragrant, mysterious, heavily worked constructions speak as much through the material’s natural properties as through the sweat of the artist.

Justin Spring