Ursula von Rydingsvard uses 4' x 4' cedar beams as her medium. Gouged, planed, drawn on in pencil, stacked, and cut, the choreography of her sculptures is mesmerizing. She has taken a simple plank of wood, accessible to all, and made it her own while never dissipating the wood’s inherent muscular strength. In looking at her pieces, it seems as if a happy truce has been reached between the sculptor and the sculpted, and the results are of a grand scale, dwarfing day-to-day life.
Von Rydingsvard’s shapes are rustic, and their appeal is in these simple forms with the delicate beauty of a primal vessel, complete in its austerity. The only divergence from this occurs when she activates the surfaces through a series of hatchings and delicate pencil markings that form a hieroglyphic web. We are left with a sense that if we just look long enough, we will be able to decipher the message. The densely packed growth rings of the wood itself echo the delicately knit pencil lines.
The wood of the cedar is known for its distinctive smell. It is a smell that preserves and keeps moths at bay; in earlier times the charcoal of the cedar tree was used for making gunpowder, and even today it is used for pencils, a point the artist makes by drawing on the surface. The dichotomy between the preservative quality of the cedar and its life-threatening long-term corrosive effects on the respiratory system is an anomaly of Mother Nature that von Rydingsvard is acutely aware of, and, knowing this, her works confront questions of life and death, weak and strong. But even in her smaller pieces, there is a sense of strength and endurance.
By using common tools and planks of wood, as well as places and memories revisited over and over again, there is a frisson of familiarity that bonds us to these forms. Her work generally begins as a general schematic plan, either on the floor or the wall, and the works grow organically in what feels like a natural progression as the artist creates a distinctive voice in the density of the wood’s structure, fighting nature’s natural tendency to dominate.
Nancy E. Green
Senior Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs