Ursula von Rydingsvard

at the Chicago Cultural Center, through January 31

By Fred Camper

The unique power of Ursula von Rydingsvard’s sculptures lies not in their rough-hewn wood surfaces, large size, dense networks of allusions, or precise balancing of opposites. Her striking, even aggressive forms, suggesting at once human, manufactured, and natural shapes, are poised on a kind of knife-edge between different possibilities, but even that quality doesn’t explain the way each piece brings the viewer to the brink of emotional chaos, generating a swirl of inchoate feelings like a flood of memories from a dimly understood past.

The titles of von Rydingsvard’s 14 works at the Chicago Cultural Center–the show surveys her two-decade career–are similarly allusive, referring to individuals, man-made objects, and natural features, sometimes within a single work, such as Lace Mountains (1989). This eight-foot-square, three-foot-deep wall of wood has seven thin vertical ridges in its upper portion jutting out toward the viewer. If these are mountains, they form a rather repetitive range, and the landscape they “rise” from has been rotated 90 degrees. More obviously, the ridges suggest very rough human profiles. And while the sides of the piece are smooth and the back is relatively flat, the front surface is extremely rough. The outlines of individual boards remain, but von Rydingsvard has carved out multiply angled surfaces, sawing away tiny pieces of each board to create irregular facets every few inches–a surface common in her work.

Lace Mountains seems to refer to both mountains’ erosion and wood’s decay. In an interview, von Rydingsvard spoke of her interest in walls that “erode in a way where there is no longer a strict line between that which man has made and that which nature has made.” And one of the key ambiguities in this piece is whether we’re viewing the disintegration of natural forms–mountains–or of a precisely limned man-made object. But in any case there’s a kind of beauty to von Rydingsvard’s dynamic cuts, her tiny forest of angled planes. Combined with the way the piece imposes itself on the surrounding space, these cuts suggest not only decay but growth–the accretion of related parts found in architecture. The cuts not only subtract from the original wood but create a new, more powerful form–a surface whose rawness suggests a work in progress, unfinished and thus still open to interpretation.

One’s impressions of decay and of growth in Lace Mountains are not of precisely balanced opposites, as happens frequently in much modernist work. Instead the viewer vacillates between the two perceptions–though in either case the emotions produced are tinged with fear, whether this is a crumbling ruin or a burgeoning structure building on itself: How big will it grow, and to what end? The five giant melded-together wooden bowls of Krasavica (1993) recall the dark forests of legends and fairy tales. Their lips are of irregular heights, ranging from waist high to chest high; their interior and exterior surfaces are equally rough. Large enough to feed a giant, they’re also massive and inviting enough to shelter a human. Indeed, their organic, seedlike shapes are almost embracing, as if encouraging one to lie cradled within–though their open tops leave one vulnerable to attack.

Just as von Rydingsvard’s surfaces seem to be both decaying and building on themselves, so her materials play dual roles. Von Rydingsvard has said that she likes wood because “it’s got enough resistance,” presumably referring to the fact that it resists her cuts. But the mostly flat surfaces that result reveal that very hardness; these works make one very aware of mass and weight. Yet while wood can seem heavy and even dead, it is also, as von Rydingsvard remarks, “organic” with a “fleshy color”–faintly suggesting human skin. Thus the wood seems alternately terrifyingly inert and touchably alive.

If von Rydingsvard’s oppositions all seem variations on the primal dualism of life and death, her past (described in the excellent exhibition catalog) provides a key to her preoccupation. Now a New Yorker, she was born in 1942 in Germany to Polish and Ukrainian parents who were brought there to work as slave laborers during the war. She spent the postwar years in a series of displaced-persons camps until her family was able to emigrate to America in 1950, and while the camps’ barracks were all pretty much alike in their drabness, the frequent and apparently arbitrary moves from one camp to another must have been disruptive for a young child. The family had few possessions in those years; von Rydingsvard has a vivid memory of a spoon her mother tied around her neck so she would not lose it. Her childhood sounds utterly rootless and fraught with uncertainty.

Seen in this light, her work suggests the emotional extremes of a child under stress, the terrible dualities that result from displacement; in Krasavica especially the contradiction between shelter and exposure seems autobiographical. The outsize quality of much of von Rydingsvard’s work–giant versions of ordinary objects–also suggests that childhood memories inform her sculpture, rendering objects larger-than-life. While memory is often not her conscious source–reportedly Krasavica was inspired by some cast-iron Japanese stirrups she saw at the Metropolitan Museum of Art–von Rydingsvard nevertheless often returns to the suggestion of a fantastic and perhaps nighmarish childhood.

The enormous Ladle (1997) has a handle about ten feet high, but the vessel’s size is even more impressive–it would hold more than enough nourishment for a whole family. It’s also barely large enough to hide a very small child, but just as in Krasavica, the open top would provide little shelter. Mother’s Purse (1997) is an array of long, narrow shapes like elongated canoes placed parallel to one another; each has a row of rough wooden balls tucked into a hollow at the top. Suggesting a monumental abacus, it also evokes, in conjunction with the title, more general ideas about collecting and possessing objects. But no rod holds these balls in place, as in an abacus; if they represent personal possessions, they’re unprotected by any purse, ripe for the taking.

The sense of vulnerability von Rydingsvard’s art produces is the one emotional effect that seems to unify all her oppositions. The open containers are subject to attack, and there’s something about the way the wood around them has been “attacked” that makes one fear the worst. (Looking like ruins, her pieces seem more random than they actually are–indeed she began to attain recognition in the art world only in 1988, after 12 years of working with wood.) When von Rydingsvard uses other materials, she also produces intense impressions of vulnerability. Maglownica (1995)–the title refers to the wood that Polish farm women use to make their linens less harsh to the touch, wrapping the cloth around it–consists of a long wooden rectangle surrounded by cow intestines sewn together. Resembling human skin, this surface leaves the wood partly visible, and this fact and the rough, irregular stitching emphasize the skin’s fragility: it looks too delicate to protect what’s inside.

My favorite work in the show is the one that seems at first to reject vulnerability. Dla Gienka (For Gene) (1993) is a massive wooden block with a mostly solid surface. If in other pieces von Rydingsvard seems to invite the viewer to crawl inside, only to feel exposed and at risk–this work at first offers no such entry. Two of the block’s faces are fairly smooth, revealing the cut ends of cedar four-by-fours, but on the other two surfaces the wood is cut into irregular facets. Though I found a tiny gap between two boards, the darkness inside suggested it was the only one; in fact this massive, inscrutable accretion, seems to offer an elegant but heavy rebuff. Entry and thus fantasies of shelter are utterly denied, and the title offers little explanation.

But this denial perhaps masks something else: the viewer, overwhelmed by weight and repetition and pushed away by the aggressive projections, may well experience the piece as an unconvincing repudiation–its “I don’t need you” rejection representing the kind of false pride that masks our greatest vulnerabilities.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “Lace Mountains” photo by David Alison.