Working with thousands of cedar 4×4’s everyday, Ursula Von Rydingsvard creates monoliths from compartments. She brings together small individual pieces and somehow fits them into towering, undulating masterpieces that seem unbreakable. This physical contradiction of creating compartmentalized monoliths makes her work powerful to view, and her concept of opposing ideas makes it equally as engaging to interpret.
Von Rydingsvard was born to a Polish and Ukranian family living in Nazi Germany. Her father was subjected to forced labor during the war until the family of nine finally embarked on a seven year journey to America. Once they were settled in Connecticut, the newly naturalized Von Rydingsvards realized that the hard work showed no signs of stopping. Ursula Von Rydingsvard speaks openly about her experience as an immigrant and how it has affected her work: “Our first consideration was always ‘is the family going to make it?’ It was branded in our heads. It wasn’t even verbalized, we just instinctively knew it. The only words that were exchanged were in connection with assigning labor. That working hard was the answer to life. The lesson was absorbed to the extent where I have to give myself talkings to all the time: It’s not always the hard work that does it, it’s also the good ideas.” (Interview from ART 21)
It’s this constant inner battle between back-breaking work and unique ideas that is so apparent in Von Rydingsvard’s art. The artist’s recent show at SCADMOA, Shadows Remain, consists mostly of pieces that are roughly modeled after utilitarian objects, no doubt acting as a homage to the necessary, never-ending work experienced in her childhood. In the piece Plate With Dots, the utilitarian is combined with the aesthetic. What results is a spectacular representation of the interplay between the physical and abstract that battles for space daily inside the artist’s head.
The few sculptures are housed on the edge of the museum, where one of the glass walls overlooks the courtyard. Viewing the pieces in tandem with the greenery outside frames them in the perfect environment, as natural light pours supple shadows over the smooth cedar. Photos don’t do it justice, and this one is a must see in person.
Von Rydingsvard champions cedar for its “sensuous nature”, and always attempts to make each piece feel like “fabric in the wind”. Her preferred method of cutting is with a circular saw, and though it’s unorthodox for that material, Von Rydingsvard and her team practically perform acrobatics everyday to create monumental, completely organic works.
For an artist that works almost exclusively in cedar, Von Rydingsvard has a very peculiar relationship with it. To start, after working with the material for so long she’s become allergic and must spend everyday in a fifteen pound air suit for eight hours or more. However, the most interesting thing about Von Rydingsvard and wood is that she’s not nostalgic or attached to it. She’s actually on a mission to try and break people’s “sentimental attachment” to the material. She explains that wood should not appear in a land of elves or in storybooks for children– wood is not cute. But this is not meant to be seen as anti-green or anti-environment. When putting into perspective her repeated theme of contradicting forces, her work only achieves real power by convincing the viewer that wood is strong. By making this stringent material yielding and organic, she can clearly express the battling oppositions of her life: the physical versus the abstract, the art versus the utilitarian, and the labor versus the idea– but even still, shadows remain.