I have seen solo exhibitions of the work of two women sculptors in the last two weeks – and it is hard to imagine two more contrasting bodies of work! Both inspirational; both fascinating to explore; both highly talented and renowned artists in their own right; and not without their points of similarity; but what different outcomes!
Ursula Von Rydingsvard, born in 1942 Germany, with a Polish mother and Ukrainian father, was mostly in refugee camps until the family emigrated to the USA, where Ursula has subsequently spent most of her life. She has her first major European exhibition at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park – see here. Joana Vasconcelos is a generation younger, born in 1971 in Portugal. Her work is on show at the Manchester Art Gallery – see here. The exhibition publicity describes Vasconcelos’ work as “… exquisitely crafted, monumental sculptures and installations …”; you could use the same words for Von Rydingsvard’s work, too. Hers is also described as “… ranging from the intimate to the immense in scale …”, which could also be said of Vasconcelos’. Other similarities can be found, with Vasconcelos “… inspired by the products and materials of Portuguese daily life …” and Von Rydingsvard producing “… sculptural forms, which at times reference … simple, rustic items such as shovels, spoons and bowls …” … “… her Polish heritage is vitally important …”.
However, whether it is the generational difference, the contrast between Northern and Southern European genes, or just two very different personalities, their creative outcomes are in sharp contrast. Here, with apologies for the quality of the image, is a typical piece from Von Rydingsvard.
She mostly works with cedar, constructing her forms from 2×4 or 4×4 beams, which are carefully, marked, cut, and assembled together – hundreds of individual pieces forming this type of abstract shape. Using graphite to subsequently darken parts of the surface, she works with a very limited colour palate, and even said, in a short film, that she does not feel comfortable with colour, sensing that it overwhelms everything else. (Where have I heard that type of comment before?!) The surfaces are hard-edged and rough-cut, despite the apparently smooth form, and are marked with thick pencil lines, where she has matched edges and drawn lines where her ‘cutters’ (skilled guys using circular saws to her precise instructions) are to work. The process is intense and serious – words that could also be used to describe the personality she portrays in interviews. She refers to growing up in an environment where you were expected to work and work, where you smiled only occasionally and laughed only when appropriate.
This is one of the central pieces of the Vasconcelos exhibition.
It is a (real) Bell 47 helicopter that has been covered with pink ostrich feathers, gold leaf, and Szarovski crystals; and has had an interior makeover involving intricate woodwork, embroidered upholstery, gilding and Arraiolos rugs. It is the artist’s vision of what Marie Antoinette would be travelling in if she were alive today! There was a 1950s Morris Oxford, full of cuddly toys and covered with toy guns, called ‘War Games’, and a piece called ‘Full Steam Ahead (Red, Green and Yellow)’, made from dozens of domestic steam irons. Humorous, subversive, and with a light-hearted touch, her work is a “… critique of contemporary society, destabilising traditional views of female sexuality, the status of women and consumer culture …” (the exhibition brochure says). As well as this type of appropriation of ready-mades, she also creates huge works, intricately constructed from textiles, embroidery, crochet work, etc, decorated with tassels and crystals, in vibrant colours – such as this partial view of an enormous special installation in the Manchester Art Gallery Atrium.
These contrasting works are, of course, characteristic of the modernist/postmodernist comparison; with Von Rydingsvard firmly in the modernist ‘camp’ and Vasconcelos in the postmodernist. The former creates intensely personal work, exploring process, form and material, that is deliberately ambiguous, “… with a feeling of intense humanity and sincerity …”. The latter has fun, and playfully responds to the global society in which she has grown-up – provoking questions and subverting, certainly, but wilfully attracting our attention and seducing our eyes as well.
I should say that I thoroughly enjoyed looking at both women’s work. I am endlessly fascinated to watch the creative processes of artists – and the films of Von Rydingsvard studio were particularly interesting in that respect. She speaks very honestly and openly about her approach. As a student of Photography, I do find sculpture particularly interesting. I’m not saying I always understand it, fully, but the physicality and three-dimensionality have something extra to offer, and I think my own interest in collage and assemblage is informed and inspired by sculptural work. I looked at the way Von Rydingsvard layers and builds up her forms and wondered whether there is something else there to try out with my ‘cut-outs’ – layering them to give extra sense of dimension and physicality. Not sure whether I can recall seeing anyone else do that – but I’m certain someone must have!