Essay by Alex Grimley
Untitled (Seven Mountains), 2000
Engineering is a type of problem solving that requires both technical expertise and creative thought. Imagination, ingenuity, enterprise: these qualities inform the mindset and practice of the engineer, who must be resourceful in order to solve a given problem. Engineers take into consideration data, science, and hard facts as they undertake their work. In much the same way, artists work with concrete materials—paint and canvas, wood, stone, or metal. In three-dimensional sculpture especially, the physical limitations of materials provide the conditions through which the artist conceives and executes a work of art.
The circumstances of sculptor Ursula von Rydingsvard’s early life were impacted by issues addressed by Civil, Architectural, and Environmental Engineering. One of seven children born to a peasant farming family during the Second World War, she spent her childhood years shuttled between refugee camps for displaced Poles. Wartime instability and the breakdown of infrastructure exacerbated the already precarious condition of von Rydingsvard’s family and made a lasting mark on the artist’s worldview. Art historian Patricia C. Phillips has written about the meaning of von Rydingsvard’s childhood for her subsequent artistic output, “conditions [which] required an enterprising use of whatever material or resource was available [and] connects back to a life of need-based economic resourcefulness where the privilege of waste was not an alternative.” Her body of work, in which rope, metal, and most often cedar are made into forms resembling tools and farming implements reflect the artist’s ongoing fascination with what Phillips describes as “the simple efficiencies of implements and utensils, and the frugal innovations and resourceful improvisations of common [artisans].”
When von Rydingsvard began making art in the 1970s, Minimalism was the predominant sculptural style. Artists working in this vein made art of fluorescent light tubes, sheets of copper, Plexiglas and other industrial materials, often presenting them “as is,” in geometric configurations with minimal transformation or manipulation. Like the Minimalists, von Rydingsvard also utilizes prefabricated materials, specifically commercially available cedar beams. In contrast to the Minimalists, however, she works against the mass-produced quality of the material, creatively reengineering it against its practical function. The craggy forms and rough surfaces of Untitled (Seven Mountains) result from von Rydingsvard’s repurposing the standardized material and returning it to a more natural state.
She begins by joining cedar beams together with glue and dowels. Once the large three-dimensional structure is in place, she then wields a chainsaw to chisel the wood. It was through a process of experimentation that the artist developed her particular way of using cedar beams. The inherent qualities of the material—its geometric regularity, its smooth surface—serve not as limitations but as generative conditions. Untitled (Seven Mountains) marked a pivotal moment in the artist’s practice. After executing the wooden forms, she finished the surface of the sculpture by rubbing and scouring it with graphite powder, creating a patina that calls to mind aging and erosion. This suggestion of natural forces working at a geologic pace subsequently became a primary aspect of her work. Von Rydingsvard’s studio practice entails breaking down the expectation that the beams would be used as a construction material, and reimagines its function as a vehicle for artistic expression.