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Ursula von Rydingsvard at DeCordova

Posted by Sebastian Smee  June 17, 2011 10:05 AM

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Thumbnail image for rydingsvard.jpgUrsula von Rydingsvard makes hefty sculptures from cedar wood. They smell good. Walking into her indoor show at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, you catch a zesty whiff, as of a sauna or northern lumberyard.

At times, however, her works look more like geology than wood. They have a layered, blasted look, as if wind, water, and subterranean pressure had gouged out their forms and patterned surfaces. Some call to mind unique formations like the Giant's Causeway on Northern Ireland's Antrim Coast, others the striations and folds of less outlandish cliffs and caves.

And yet even as they look born, von Rydingsvard's sculptures are also - self-evidently - made, by human hands and tools. The artist emphasizes this by leaving her own marks and notations on the works' surfaces.

Her process varies with each piece. But it involves hard labor (stacking, gluing, and clamping cedar beams), challenging logistics, and lots of planning.

Von Rydingsvard won the Rappaport Prize in 2008. Set up and sustained by Jerry and Phyllis Rappaport, the prize is dispensed through the deCordova. So even though this mid-career retrospective was organized by Helaine Posner for the SculptureCenter in Long Island City, NY, it is a return, of sorts, for von Rydingsvard.

The artist arranges and re-arranges blocks of wood almost like collage, building up monumental forms from smaller sections, before setting to work with a circular saw to carve out their exterior shapes. She ends the process by covering parts of the surface with graphite, darkening the natural patina of the cedar.

Process is one thing. But do they work as sculptures? A lot of the time, yes. There are two tremendous pieces in the deCordova's main gallery, and another one on the roof. All three instantly convince you of von Rydingsvard's force as an artist, and of the originality of her achievement.

But a little too much in this show fails to get going. I suspect it's because, even as von Rydingsvard has gouged out a powerful new language, she is not always so convincing when it comes to forms. Not unlike Chakaia Booker, who was the subject of a compelling survey show at the deCordova last summer, she can be mesmerizing one minute, and nerveless the next. See more here

NB. The deCordova has just announced that this summer, from July 5 through September 2, entry will be free on weekdays.

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About the author

The Boston Globe Journalist Series: Sebastian Smee
Sebastian Smee is the Globe's art critic, winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for criticism. He joined the paper's staff from Sydney, where he served as the national art critic for The Australian. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @SebastianSmee. Read Smee's full bio.

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