REVIEW | Ursula von Rydingsvard: Bronze Bowl with Lace
March 22, 2016
Ursula von Rydingsvard: Bronze Bowl with Lace
Art Institute of Chicago
Hidden away on an outdoor terrace on the top floor of the museum, a beast: a commanding vertical bowl of nearly twenty feet in height and ten feet across patiently waits to deliver an intimidating experience. It did, of course; leaving an impact on me emotionally and physically that can only be equated to its massive size.
Bronze Bowl with Lace by Ursula von Rydingsvard is a remarkable work: in scale, in texture, in material, in technique, and in concept. A combination of abstraction and detail, layers of heaving and intricately carved wooden pieces are meticulously placed and shaped until the elongated vessel is formed. Soft folds create hidden and unreachable valleys that begin before the work begins and widen with the sheer girth of the structure. Then slowly, the opacity begins to give way and allow light to pass through, until it dissolves into the most beautiful and intricate lace pattern that extends the vertical reach of the piece and gives it a physical breath: a moment of pause, of relief, of reflection. And it is my favorite part, a beautiful softness contrasted against the rough, hewn, and dense structure it adorns. The work is monumentally ambitious, and ultimately successful, because it is sharply confident, lyrically understated, and sensually bold. Or as I would define it: perfection.
As with most of von Rydingsvard’s sculptures it begins with cedar, an exceedingly porous and pliable wood sympathetic to the complex textural surfaces that have defined her work for decades. She has remarked that “unlike other wood, there's virtually no visible grain to cedar. It's "neutral; it's like a piece of paper…It really says nothing in and of itself — so it then enables me to really sort of tear it apart and make it do the acrobatics that I need it to do." And that possibility, that flexibility to manipulate the material is at the crux of von Rydingsvard’s work – the importance of making her works by hand (though humbling to consider relative to the scale of her pieces) is paramount. “I can’t eke humaneness out of something that’s not made by hand,” she once noted, “I just can’t really communicate without the relationship between the hand and the material.” Ironically, after all these years, von Rydingsvard has become allergic to the cedar, and must now wear a 15-pound suit with air pumped into it for as many as eight hours a day to continue her work. This stubbornness to persevere, to refuse to relinquish her ties to her past or her process is felt in every single component she touches.
Though it is one of only a few of her works cast in bronze, the process for making Bronze Bowl with Lace, nonetheless, remained much the same. She begins with simple lines sketched onto the studio floor and then works intuitively andwithout preconceived notions, experimenting with form and making aesthetic adjustments as she builds up and out. The process is painstaking: each piece of wood was cut, stacked and screwed into place, and, once built, the entire sculpture was reverse stacked and laminated in sections to then be sand cast in bronze. The uppermost lace pattern was cast in the lost-wax method: the pattern was traced onto wax molds and cut out by hand and during the casting process, an elaborate web was left behind. The final layer is a gorgeous patina, here are flecks and subtle gradations in earth tone hues that dance between light and dark over the surface and in-between its folds. The outer texture highlights the artist’s respect and fervor for detail and nuance; but also opens the door for me as the viewer to relate to the piece. Art critic Janet Koplos captured this sentiment perfectly in a review of von Rydingsvard’s work when she noted, “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.”
It would be easy to appreciate this work simply on its beauty, its process, or its staggering presence alone; but the work isn’t simply or formally objective – there are conceptual ideas subtly woven into the layers of this monumental piece (though von Rydingsvard often downplays their weight or reality). Born Ursula Karoliszyn in 1942 in a German work camp in Deensen, Germany, she was the fifth of seven children to parents of Polish and Ukrainian origins. It has been noted that before she was ten years old, she had lived in as many as nine different displaced-persons camps before the family immigrated to the United States following World War II. It is impossible to imagine that such a challenging and confining childhood doesn’t play an enormous role in not only her creative live, but her personal as well.
I find it evident in her organic shapes and forms, the comforting but indistinguishable materials, and the arduous methods of the work she feels compelled to create. And the scale, well it is an obvious statement of bravery: a complete lack of fear to construct impossible sculptures despite her rather humble and difficult start. Her works morph into an army of protectors: demonstrative and unmovable, staunch and perceptibly succinct, timeless and unforgettable. I also think it informs the role of the vessel in her work, defining her life-sized bowls as containers for herself and for us. She once stated, “I’ve always had this urge to surround the body. There is something psychological that happens when you are surrounded that’s different from just looking at something at a distance,” she says. “That’s not to say experience can’t be moving, but I feel you can grip psychologically in a more intense way when you’re surrounded, although I don’t necessarily know where these urges come from.” Solid, safe, secure: her works become places rather than objects – prepared to shield, overwhelm, and capture if you will let them. I find myself open to von Rydingsvard’s invitation, I am willing to share in the things that inevitably remain.
Images (from top to bottom):Bronze Bowl with Lace, Installation views on the Bluhm Family Terrace, 2015, bronze, 19.5 x 9.5 x 10 feet, Private collection, Courtesy Galerie Lelong, New York
Footnotes:  Michel, Karen. When Sculpting Cedar, This Artist Is Tireless And Unsentimental. www.npr.org, 28 April, 2013. Web. 20 March 2016. <http://www.npr.org/2013/04/28/177969148/when-sculpting-cedar-this-artist-is-tireless-and-unsentimental>.;  Helmke, Juliet. “Life Wrought Large.” Art+Auction October 2014: Vol. 38, Issue 2, p. 78. Print.;  Kopolos, Janet. “Stasis and Agitation.” Art in America January 2001: pp. 86-88, 141. Print.;  Helmke, Juliet. “Life Wrought Large.” Art+Auction October 2014: Vol. 38, Issue 2, p. 78. Print.
Bibliography:Ecology. Art21. 2007 (Season 4). Web. 21 March 2016. http://www.pbs.org/art21/artists/ursula-von-rydingsvard; Helmke, Juliet. “Life Wrought Large.” Art+Auction October 2014: Vol. 38, Issue 2, p. 78. Print.; Kopolos, Janet. “Stasis and Agitation.” Art in America January 2001: pp. 86-88, 141. Print.; Michel, Karen. When Sculpting Cedar, This Artist Is Tireless And Unsentimental. www.npr.org, 28 April, 2013. Web. 20 March 2016. <http://www.npr.org/2013/04/28/177969148/when-sculpting-cedar-this-artist-is-tireless-and-unsentimental>.