The Denver Botanic Gardens is known for plants and flowers but also for the monumental, and wildly popular, art exhibitions it stages in the summer. It is difficult to think of any event — and I mean in the last 30 years of Denver visual art — that drew more visitors than DBG’s showcase of Dale Chihuly glass scattered across the grounds back in 2014. The show was legend.
But this season, the garden is pruning back its ambitions, forgoing the splashy, crowd-friendly display of objects spread about its tulips and tall grasses and putting energy into its indoor galleries with a show of wood sculptures by artist Ursula von Rydingsvard.
In some ways, that is disappointing. The outdoor shows gave a new dimension to the garden that Denverites have become so familiar with over the years, and they were a nice way for DBG to make summer a little more exciting for residents here. Ambitious exhibitions of works by Henry Moore, Deborah Butterfield and Alexander Calder were not just memorable, they also rose to important moments in garden history.
But the change was probably inevitable, and it does make sense for several reasons. The lingering coronavirus pandemic continues to present unpredictable logistical challenges to this sort of large-scale exhibition-making and, when it comes to public events, the virus has taught us that smaller may be better, at least in the short term. Plus, the garden now has a whole new lineup of high-quality, indoor art spaces that were built into the Freyer-Newman education building that opened in late 2020.
For fans of the huge art gesture, there is some good news. The show is still monumental in its way and it definitely warrants a special trip to the garden to view it.
Von Rydingsvard, 79, is a world-class artist with a long and distinguished career. She is a Guggenheim fellow, and her objects are part of many esteemed collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art, both located in New York City where she now lives.
The work itself has an organic grandness. It is big and heavy, with each piece weighing hundreds or thousands of pounds and bearing dimensions up to 10 or 20 feet in all directions. Von Rydingsvard’s objects have an immense presence to them; they feel consequential.
She makes them from 4-inch by 4-inch cedar beams, which she hand hews in her studio so that each has a rough and individualized shape along its edges. Up close, they have the appearance of rugged rockscapes with cracks and crevices, bumps and multiple strata. She then layers beam after beam to make her massive works of art.
She shapes them into objects that might resemble failing trees (like with 2015’s “For Natasha”) or giant bowls (1996’s “Ocean Floor”), or large funnel shapes that are wide on the top, 10 or so feet off the ground, and narrow as they reach the floor (2017’s “Cos”).
Some pieces in the exhibition, “The Contour of Feeling,” are free-standing and placed in the center of DBG’s galleries. Others are attached to the walls and look like reliefs. She is fond of vessel forms, and this show has a few solid examples.
While her raw materials, the beams, are mass-produced, van Rydingsvard gives her finished products a hand-made vibe by going into various chasms and fissures and applying layers of graphite. The markings add dimension and visual depth, but also drama, and sometimes when she goes far with it, melodrama.
Her intent is to make viewers feel something deep yet illusive. The title of the exhibition borrows a line from the poet Rainer Maria Rilke: “We don’t know the contour of feeling, we only know what molds it.”
Von Rydingsvard’s personal molding was influenced by her early youth, as the brief text accompanying the show points out. She was born in Germany to Polish and Ukrainian parents who worked as farmers in forced labor under the Nazis. The family lived in nine “displacement camps” for Polish refugees before immigrating to the United States in 1950.
The works are not positioned as manifestations of that, but it is a life detail that, once known, is inseparable from the objects on view. There is a hefty darkness to them, a dangerous sort of beauty, but also a strong sense of resilience. They are fierce.
It is natural to imagine they come from a psyche that is both scarred and determined, a soul with an important tale to tell.
Indeed, the packaging can feel manipulative because we learn almost nothing else about von Rydingsvard as we tour this show. How much was she influenced by this trauma; how much is carried through to this sculpture? We are left in the dark on that, told only that “the artist resists straightforward biographical readings of her works” and that her memories are “woven into her subconscious or instinct, which in turn leaves an imprint on her art.”
It seems a bit unfair to keep us guessing but, one imagines, the artist is left guessing herself. Who knows how much is embedded in our psyche by experiences that took place long ago and during the formation of memory?
It is a mystery of life, a conundrum that is to be worked out through experiences, long conversations, professional therapy and, sometimes, art. Von Rydingsvard’s gift to us is not just the objects she makes, but also this personal inquisition she shares through those objects. On so many levels, this artist and this exhibition are compelling.
Ursula von Rydingsvard’s “The Contour of Feeling” continues through Sept. 11 at the Denver Botanic Gardens, 1007 York St. Info at 720-865-3500 or botanicgardens.org.
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