The Denver Botanic Gardens is known for its plants and flowers, but also for the monumental and hugely popular art exhibitions it hosts during the summer. It’s hard to imagine an event — and I mean in the last 30 years of Denver’s fine arts — that has drawn more visitors than DBG’s 2014 display case of Dale Chihuly glass that littered the grounds. The show was legendary.
But this season the garden is trimming its ambitions, forgoing the splashy, people-friendly display of objects scattered about its tulips and tall grasses, and pouring energy into its indoor galleries with a display of wooden sculptures by artist Ursula von Rydingsvard.
In a way, that’s disappointing. The outdoor shows added a new dimension to the garden that Denver residents have become so familiar with over the years, and they were a nice way for DBG to add a little more excitement to the summer for residents here. Ambitious exhibitions featuring works by Henry Moore, Deborah Butterfield and Alexander Calder were not only memorable, they became important moments in garden history.
But the change was probably inevitable and makes sense for several reasons. The ongoing coronavirus pandemic continues to present these types of large-scale exhibitions with unpredictable logistical challenges, and when it comes to public events, the virus has taught us that smaller might be better, at least in the short term. In addition, the Garden now features a whole new set of high-quality indoor art spaces, built into the Freyer Newman Educational Building, which opened in late 2020.
There is good news for fans of the giant art gesture. The show is still monumental in its own way and definitely warrants a special trip to the garden to see 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 distinguished collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art, both located in New York City, where she now resides.
The work itself has an organic grandeur. It is large and heavy, with each piece weighing hundreds or thousands of pounds and measuring up to 10 or 20 feet in all directions. Von Rydingsvard’s objects have an immense presence; they feel momentous.
She crafts them from 4″ x 4″ cedar logs that she hand hewn in her studio, so each has a rough and individual shape at its edges. Up close they look like rugged rocky landscapes with cracks and crevasses, bumps and multiple layers. She then stacks beam upon beam to create her massive works of art.
She shapes them into objects resembling failing trees (as on 2015’s “For Natasha”), or giant bowls (1996’s “Ocean Floor”), or large funnel shapes that are wide at the top and about 10 feet (3 meters) narrow when they reach the bottom (2017 “Cos”).
Some pieces of the exhibition “The Contour of Feeling” are free-standing and placed in the center of the galleries of the DBG. Others are attached to the walls and look like reliefs. She loves vessel shapes, and this show has some solid examples.
While her raw materials, the beams, are mass-produced, van Rydingsvard gives her end products a handmade feel by going into various chasms and cracks and applying layers of graphite. The marks add dimension and visual depth, but also drama, and sometimes, if she goes far, melodrama.
Her intention is to make the viewer feel something deep but deceptive. The title of the exhibition is borrowed from a line by the poet Rainer Maria Rilke: “We don’t know the contours of feeling, we only know what shapes it.”
Von Rydingsvard’s personal imprint was influenced by her early youth, as the short text accompanying the show shows. She was born in Germany to Polish and Ukrainian parents who were forced laborers as farmers under the Nazis. The family lived in nine “expulsion camps” for Polish refugees before emigrating to the United States in 1950.
The works are not positioned as manifestations of it, but it is a detail of life that, once known, is inseparable from the objects on display. You have a powerful darkness, a dangerous kind of beauty, but also a strong sense of resilience. They are fierce.
It’s easy to imagine that they come from a psyche both scarred and determined, a soul with an important story to tell.
In fact, the packaging can feel manipulative because we learn almost nothing more about von Rydingsvard as we tour this show. How affected was she by this trauma; how much is carried into this sculpture? We are left in the dark about this, only told that “the artist resists a simple biographical reading of her works” and that her memories are “woven into her subconscious or instinct, which in turn informs her art”.
It seems a bit unfair to make us guess, but you can imagine the artist having to guess herself. Who knows how much is embedded in our psyche through long-past experiences and during memory formation?
It is a mystery of life, an enigma that must be solved through experience, long conversations, professional therapy and sometimes art. Rydingsvard’s gift to us is not just the objects she makes, but also this personal investigation she shares through those objects. On so many levels this artist and this exhibition is compelling.
Ursula von Rydingsvard’s The Contour of Feeling is on until September 11 at the Denver Botanic Gardens, 1007 York St. Info at 720-865-3500 or botanicgardens.org.
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