Last weekend, I visited the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. We often take our dog for walks there, but last Saturday, although the dog came too, I was on a mission: to visit its latest exhibition, a stunning major show of more than fifty pieces by the American sculptor Ursula Von Rydingsvard.
As her name suggests, she wasn’t born in the USA, but in Germany, to a Polish mother and Ukrainian father, in 1942. After a tough time in various refugee camps, she and her family emigrated to America in 1952. Admirers of her work say that they see the suffering of her childhood rooted in it. She herself says that it may be there, but that no single piece of her work conveys a single message, because that would bore her, and probably bore others, too.
I agree wholeheartedly with this, and was certainly not thinking about her past when I walked, awe-struck, past the pieces in the gardens at YSP and then on to the indoor part of the exhibition which is housed in the spectacular underground studio there. Von Rydingsvard is particularly fascinated by cedar and many of the pieces consist of huge planks of cedar wood that she has sculpted to bring out its innate qualities in more stylised form. Her monumental bronze and synthetic material sculptures also convey the textures of their cedar moulds. One of these, Bronze Bowl with Lace, has a fine, billowing filigree band at the top, based on a real piece of lace; it is astonishing to see how delicate this is. She first talked of achieving this as long ago as 2002 and it is undoubtedly her most ambitious piece so far. It is internally lit with an ember glow and has external base lighting, too, so it transforms itself over a twenty-four hour period.
It was, however, the pieces actually made out of cedar that I liked best. Some of these are huge figures or monuments that tower over the visitor. Others, though still relatively large, are representations of more homely objects, such as spoons and other household utensils. [“I did not play games nearly as much as other children did. When I did play them, they were in a style I recall as being serious. I often played with sticks, wooden balls and other knife-carved wooden objects made with a child’s will and awkward technical skills. I also played with crude domestic objects in bombed-out brick buildings, the ruins of which were layered in ways that for me felt exciting.”] There are also some textiles pieces. There are identifiable ‘periods’ to Von Rydingsvard’s work, but she has remained faithful to cedar, in many different incarnations, for the whole of her career.
Right at the end of the indoor exhibition was a small seating area where visitors could linger to watch a video of Von Rydingsvard describing her work. I was at first surprised at how halting, nervous and at times almost incoherent she seemed in this production. Then I realised how arrogant it was of me to make this observation. Sculpture is her medium, not words, and she has indicated in many interviews that she is uncomfortable with trying to analyse her sculpture too closely or on too simple a level. It’s impossible as well as invidious to try to compare different art forms and I’d challenge any writer to try to convey his or her work in sculpture. Why, therefore, should we expect a sculptor to wish to convey hers in words?
The Ursula Von Rydingsvard exhibition will remain at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park until next spring. If you are interested in sculpture, it is a must-see. If you haven’t visited the YSP before, that in itself is a rare treat!