Violent, monumental work from N.Y. sculptor looms at two Philly museums

Ursula von Rydingsvard has been working with cedar for four decades. Many, many tons of cedar milled into standard two-by-two and four-by-four lumber have passed through her Brooklyn studio.

It’s been a long relationship, with its own ups and downs.

“I keep slapping my hand, especially after I see a truck coming loaded with cedar, I’m saying, ‘Ursula, enough,’ ” she said.

Every once in a while, she strays, working in stone, clay, silk or other material — even raw cow stomachs.

“I was looking for something disgusting,” Rydsingvard recalled. “But it’s not really that disgusting.”

She always comes back to cedar, in part, because it’s so boring.

“The cedar has almost no grain, that makes it like a blank piece of paper that one can make into what one desires,” she said. “I hate the grain in the wood. I avoid it as much as I can.”

Cedar is also relatively soft, making it easy to manipulate. Rydingsvard builds her large sculptures by hacking at the ends of the boards, then gluing them face-to-face. She often works from the base, moving out piece by piece, the shape of each informed by its predecessor. Hundreds of stacked pieces ultimately curve and undulate into huge, abstract forms.

Many of the pieces were crudely chopped with power tools — in one case a chain saw — to violently subdue the cedar into what she wants. She admits that she and her studio assistants do not follow the tools’ safety guidelines.

“I’m a friend of violence. Not violence on others, but I really abuse my cedar,” she said. “I dream the cedar is willing to sacrifice itself for what it becomes. I made all that up, obviously, but I’m going to continue to believe that.”

The Philadelphia Museum of Art is now showing two outdoor sculptures. One of them, “Bronze Bowl with Lace,” is a 20-foot bronze, cast in a cedar mold, that resembles a tornado.

Simultaneously, the Fabric Workshop and Museum is exhibiting “The Contour of Feeling,” a retrospective of Rydingsvard’s work going back to the 1970s when she was influenced by the repetition of minimalism.

Her more recent works include striated canyon walls, gouged by water erosion and a 15-foot sleeping dog. “For Stas” (2011) is a 20-foot Sphinxlike shape in three bulbous parts. Rydingsvard felt it ended up being too Sphinxlike — she didn’t want it to suggest a head and body — so she applied a pattern of graphite smudges to obscure what might be construed as a face.

“I spend a lot of time looking at the surface of oceans, which are infinitely complex. Things I could never do, things I love looking at — so infinitely varied,” she said, adding that when directly confronted by the awe-inspiring complexities of nature, she has to turn her head.

“The way that I could best comprehend nature is to have it framed by a window, so that that’s all I had to deal with,” said Rydingsvard. “So it is not a forest that is so overwhelming and incredible to take in that it becomes un-understandable. It’s too much. I can take in little things and try to digest it.”

She made her most recent work as an artist-in-residence at the Fabric Workshop and Museum.

“PODERWAC” is a 12 1/2-foot leather jacket sewn together from disassembled pieces of other leather jackets. The jacket hangs from the ceiling so its cuffs drag on the ground, as though one of the Ramones were actually a very large gorilla. Like her other work, “PODERWAC” looks hacked and violent, like a Frankenstein monster.

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