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Untitled (Seven Mountains) by Ursula von Rydingsvard (Photo by Ben Aqua)

In the introduction to David Levi Strauss‘ book From Head to Hand: Art and the Manual, he points out that “in an increasingly mediated world, one of the most radical things artists can do is to use their hands.” He goes on to quote Leo Steinberg: “The eye is a part of the mind.”

This point of view is right in line with my operative ethos for art as defined by Robert Smith in her review a few years back of what is missing in too many of the museum shows she was seeing: Art that seems made by one person out of intense personal necessity, often by hand. So the reference in Strauss’ title to the head and the hand is of elemental importance to my view of art making.

This small book has been on my nightstand for nearly a year. The writing has a compact denseness that I love. You only need to read a line or two at the end of the day to be dropped into that meditative state before sleeping. Strauss offers his wisdom and insights on a number of artists and writers who are among my personal favorites: Joseph Beuys, Martin Puryear, Ursula von Rydingsvard, Nancy Spero, Cecilia Vicuña. I’ll share a few passages from the book over the next few posts.

Here is a sampling from his chapter on Ursula von Rydingsvard, “Sculpture and Sanctuary”:

Rydingsvard’s relation to the symbolic is effected by her relation to nature. She has often spoken in interviews of her abhorrence of competing with or imitating nature. She eschews mimesis in favor of reciprocity, aiming to get the objects she makes “to echo things that nature might say but doesn’t.” Her organicism is always a mediated organicism, arising from the religious imagination as defined by W. S. Piero: “The religious imagination is a respondent, form-making act of consciousness, back toward and into that which it believes has shaped it—the force of otherness. It replies to the givenness of existence by reshaping the forms of nature into the forms of work.”

My review of Rydingsvard’s show at the de Cordova Museum last year inter alia can be read here.


Ursula von Rydingsvard, from her recent retrospective at the de Cordova Museum

A few personal highlights from shows in and near Boston:


Ursula von Rydingsvard, Ocean Floor, 1996, cedar, graphite, and intestines
(Photo courtesy of the Artist and Galerie Lelong. Photograph by Andy Ryan)

Ursula von Rydingsvard
Andy Goldsworthy
Kysa Johnson

deCordova Museum
Lincoln MA

From the museum’s intro to Ursula von Rydingsvard:

Ursula von Rydingsvard works on a monumental scale. For over thirty years, she has worked with red cedar, a soft and fragrant wood. Using both carving and construction techniques she painstakingly cuts, assembles, and glues the cedar beams which have been shaped by a circular saw. In a final, unifying action, von Rydingsvard rubs the sharply textured, exposed surfaces with graphite powder to create works of enormous grandeur and stirring intimacy.

This scale and the range of works in von Rydingsvard’s show are both in the extreme, and for many that is reason enough to see the exhibition. Technically and logistically the work is a bit mind-boggling, no question. But some go beyond the awe factor and deliver a powerful, complete experience. The ones that work best for me are more complex than just carved and whittled wood, often including organic substances such as skins, intestines and cut glass. The tension in and between the disparate materials has a more dynamic tension. Ocean Floor, pictured above, is both enormous and yet fetish-like. That fetish writ large is also evident in a wood structure wrapped in resinated intestines. Memoraable. von Rydingsvard’s drawings are also very strong.


Engagingly fetish-like and oversized: Intestines stitched and stretched over wood


Drawing by von Rydingsvard


Cut glass structure, on the museum roof

As popularized and adored as Andy Goldsworthy has become, who can’t still find something endearing about his work? This is especially true while he is in the process of doing a new installation and homage to New England called Snow House, for the sculpture park at the deCordova. The current exhibit is just a prequel to the upcoming construction but there are some worthwhile moments of Goldsworthian playfulness on display. I particularly responded to the photographs of his large snowballs, laced inside with stones or with sticks, and then “placed” in unexpected urban settings. Each is documented as the melting leaves a pile of telltale “bones” behind. Of particular note for me were the “drawings” Goldsworthy did using dirty Manhattan snowballs left to melt on a piece of heavy paper. The lines left behind are like watercolor wet on wet—organic and exquisitely edged and toned.


One of Goldsworthy’s Manhattan Snow Ball drawings

Kysa Johnson‘s work is new to me, but her large scale mural in the Wall Works show was extraordinary. Taking a photograph of a polluted river as her starting point, Johnson has used white pencil on a dark background to reconstruct a new view of the same image. Her version is additionally embedded with the molecular symbols for the pollutants that have been found in the river, giving her beautifully rendered image a hauntingly dark and ominous layer as well. Amazing piece of work.


Kysa Johnson


Detailed views of Johnson’s mural

Nancy Natale, on view at
Arden Gallery
129 Newbury Street
Boston

Nancy is a friend of mine, and her new work is muscular, visceral and sharp. (Nancy’s advocate Joanne Mattera has referred to this series as “the love child of Lee Bontecou and El Anatsui” which is high praise IMHO.) These new pieces have energy and a beguiling charm, and Arden Gallery is an excellent place for her to show.


Some Fell Among Thorns, by Nancy Natale, Arden Gallery

Paintings Drawings & Sculpture
Victoria Munroe Fine Art
Victoria Munroe Gallery
161 Newbury Street
Boston


Two pieces by Chuck Holtzman

I’m a long time fan of the work of Chuck Holtzman, and Munroe has some beauties on view in the back room. (The MFA had a large Holtzman drawing on view a few years ago which was also a stunner.)

Carol Gove is also well represented in this show with a selection of her meticulous collages.