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Many a museum wall is bedecked with a “no touching” sign. The rule is generally easy enough to follow for everyone but the youngest of children. But adults will find their fingers itching when they view Ursula von Rydingsvard: The Contour of Feeling. Though the title refers to the deep emotional connection the artist has to her work, gallery goers may long to touch or even climb upon the surfaces that the artist has prepared. 

Ursula von Rydingsvard’s most distinctive works are her cedar sculptures, which often tower over the viewer as if they were massive rock formations or epic human projects, like the pyramids. They appear as though they’ve existed since time immemorial, shaped by something otherworldly. Get up a bit closer, and the artist’s hand reveals itself. Notes scribbled in pencil, carpentry marks, and hand-carved grooves and cuts stamp the surface. Von Rydingsvard employs a painstaking process of cutting, assembling, laminating, and smoothing the wood, operating by some emotional map in her head, and the results, though sometimes rough-hewn, are astonishingly tender. 

Born in Germany, von Rydingsvard’s father worked as a forced laborer in Nazi camps and later as a woodcutter. Her family lived in a series of postwar refugee camps, typically in wooden barracks, before departing for Connecticut when the artist was 8 years old. Her early surroundings and her father’s trade can perhaps partly explain her affinity for cedar. She says the family philosophy, even after arriving in the U.S., was that “working hard was the answer to life. The lesson was absorbed.” The same sense of workmanship that drove her father clearly drives von Rydingsvard, as evidenced not only in the scale of her sculptures and the physical effort they demand of her, but in her constant endeavors to push her artistic practice further. 

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Wood is far from the only material to be found in The Contour of Feeling. Playful material explorations are central to von Rydingsvard’s work, and the exhibit features leather jackets, steel wool, plaster, lace, silicone, fake hair, bronze, roots, and cow intestines. Some materials are easily identifiable, but the stranger components she works with inspire a jolt of recognition when the viewer checks the label.  

Tucked in a back room is a collection of von Rydingsvard’s “little nothings,” or small studio experimentations and material studies from the last 15 years. Most of them resemble some sort of tool or totem, and they’re displayed like items unearthed in an archaeological study. These small-scale curiosities provide a tantalizing glimpse into her process, including how she arrives at her mammoth finished work. Adjacent to the wall of little nothings is “Ocean Floor,” a gigantic bowl structure with tiered layers descending to the bottom, the outer rim flanked with buoy-like forms fashioned from cow intestines. (These are echoed in some of her experiments with the same material.)

“PODERWAĆ” is perhaps the most playful, and certainly the most humorous piece in the show. It features an oversized, towering leather jacket hanging from the ceiling with arms outstretched. Von Rydingsvard created it from 90 regular-sized leather jackets while in residence at The Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia, where The Contour of Feeling was first mounted and where von Rydingsvard had the space and resources to stretch her material studies even further. Though it is composed of a more processed bovine material than her other works, it’s no less gnarly than the cow intestines that hang elsewhere. 

Downstairs in the Teresa Lozano Long Gallery, the artists of More is More: Multiples are similarly pushing the boundaries of material and medium, albeit in different ways. If The Contour of Feeling highlights the particularity of one artist’s hand through a collection of her individual works, More is More trumpets the appeal of mass production. The history and meaning of the original works behind the reproductions in More is More are not any less worthy just because they’re plastered on products. In fact, some of them challenge the entire notion of a priceless original. 

Barbara Kruger, who toys with advertising conventions and sloganeering in her work, is right at home here with pairs of sunglasses ornamented with one of her iconic captions, “Your gaze hits the side of my face.” The original print features a photograph of a marble bust of a woman with the titular words printed over it, and hints at the objectification of women and their quiet dismay. Thrown into a new context, literally hitting the side of the face of whoever dons them as well as shielding their eyes from whoever might be gazing at them, Kruger’s typically enigmatic statement takes on different meanings. 

Cindy Sherman, the reigning queen of self portraiture, has printed her likeness onto an array of porcelain dinner plates in “Madame de Pompadour (née Poisson) Dinner Service, 1990.” Viewers can choose to purchase their own set of 30 for $10,000 for their own dinner service on artwareeditions.com, selecting their color choice from a drop down menu, not unlike ordering online from Crate & Barrel. 

Other iconic works were also made to be sold, such as a baby onesie decorated with a reproduction of Louise Bourgeois’ 2005 screen print “Be Calm,” which can be read either as an admonition to a fussy baby or a gentle reminder to Mom and Dad not to lose it. Artist Abigail Crompton contributes an eye mask printed with a photograph of Bourgeois’ eyes (“Louise Bourgeois eye mask,” 2016), so that the wearer might actually attain an artist’s eye (ironically, while not being able to see a darn thing). One might further wear their favorite artist like a brand with Judy Chicago’s T-shirt emblazoned with her name. Chicago originally created the shirt in 1970 to announce that she was changing her name to an identity independent of male associations; now, it serves as a wry form of self-promotion. 

Some of the works in More Is More imitate promotional materials in service of sending a message, like erasers blaring “ERASE DISCRIMINATION” from the Guerrilla Girls, the feminist collective known for calling out gender inequality in the art world. Just like any other swag, they’re meant to be useful so that they disperse out into the wild. 

In an introductory video on Mickalene Thomas’ website, she proclaims: “to see yourself and for others to see you is a form of validation.” It’s fitting that in this show, she presents not just a handbag covered in portraits she’s photographed to be toted around for all the world to see, but compact mirrors with her portraits gracing the lids, so that the viewer may literally see themselves in her works. 

If going to museums, and especially collecting art, is unattainable for many, isn’t it better that people have other avenues to be exposed to great artworks? 

Don’t worry about the “no touching” rule at More is More—visitors can literally get their hands on some of the items, like a set of Rodarte paper dolls designed by Jess Rotter in conjunction with last winter’s Rodarte exhibit. Though the dolls aren’t available in the museum shop at this time, visitors can snag notebooks and enamel pins modeled on Rotter’s same illustrations. 

The Contour of Feeling at National Museum of Women in the Arts to July 28. 

More is More: Multiples at National Museum of Women in the Arts to September 22, 2019.