Exhibition interpretation texts for Sophie Ryder: Monumental, at the RWA, 2013. The texts can be downloaded as a PDF here.
Sophie Ryder, Monumental
Sophie Ryder’s work is an amalgamation of multiple forms: animal and human; miniature and monumental; domestic and wild; transparent and opaque. It encompasses fact and fiction – part-autobiographical, part-mythology – and straddles two very different worlds.
Ryder’s work is frequently discussed in terms of size and her work is often said to be ‘monumental’ in stature. However, it also lends itself to a more abstract understanding of the term. Her work bears a history – a past – commemorating both Ryder’s physical and philosophical input into the work. It is in this sense that the fragility of the work shines through: a monument to its own construction.
The scale and size of Ryder’s work has increased over the years since her time as a student at the Royal Academy of Art in London, where, at just 17, Ryder was the youngest student to attend since J. M. W. Turner. Her work has also embraced new methods of production as Ryder has mastered new skills, learning to meld materials to fit the complexity of her work. Her bronzes (and their inner lives as plaster casts) bear the scars of this construction. Ryder uses screws, cogs and toys within her sculptures, embedding these recognisable, everyday objects into the surface of the plaster. From rusted toy cars to old machinery, these objects add texture to the surface, but they also tell a story.
Ryder’s work is more autobiographical than most. She models figures on her own body to create the recurring character of Lady-Hare, but creates a distinct line between herself and this ‘animal-human’ by adorning the human figure with a hare’s head as a mask. This use of costume or veil only serves to imbue the work with greater vulnerability, contributing to the fragility of these monumental forms.
The same forms have haunted Ryder’s work across the decades as she returns to familiar themes; making multiple versions of the same work, each time exploring a new dimension of scale and medium. This method of multiplicity is perfectly captured in Monumental as the physical proximity of the work lends itself to comparison, revealing her process of transforming a two-dimensional idea upon the page into a three-dimensional sculptural form.
In this sense Monumental invites us into Ryder’s world, providing a tour of her imagination that eventually concedes to Ryder’s own assertion that it is a world that is above all ‘resolutely human’.
Ryder’s work is intrinsically linked to the act of ‘seeing’, a theme perfectly encapsulated in the work Nell’s Eye. By producing work on a large-scale Ryder asks the viewer to consider each form in a new light. In Monumental the work Nell’s Eye dominates the space, casting its gaze across the gallery. Its position allows it to look directly through us, yet its transparency invites a reciprocal action from the viewer, creating a portal into Ryder’s intriguing ‘other world’. The work Eye, shown in 2005 at Yorkshire Sculpture Park explored this concept further by hanging the wire drawing upon a frame, suspended against the backdrop of the rolling countryside.
These wire drawings are made directly upon a white wall, similar to that of the gallery setting, allowing Ryder the perfect vantage point from which to view the work’s progression. They evolve from a simple pencil sketch which is then re-interpreted as Ryder twists and bends the wire to fit her vision. Their evolution from her early work is profound as her technical skill has developed and she now creates patches of light and shade in these sculptural drawings mimicking the path of a pencil. In her exhibition of New Work at Victoria Art Gallery in Bath, 2009, Jonathon Bennington suggested that: “Ryder’s hands, feet, eyes and mouths stimulate our awareness of the non-verbal channels of communication, casting us in the role of receiver vis-à-vis the work’s function as a large-scale transmitter.”
Nell’s Eye is shown here for the first time, marking its departure from Ryder’s studio out into the world. Similar to Sleeping Feet, this work draws attention to the act of communication through body language, inviting us to make our own metaphorical interpretations of these ‘large-scale transmitters’. Here, the very subject matter lends an additional layer of meaning, suggestive of various acts of seeing, looking and dreaming.
Ryder uses both animal and human forms to explore themes of myth and mortality. Sleeping Feet enlarges the human form to a monumental scale, creating a direct juxtaposition between sculpture and the self. Ryder has produced a number of sculptures and wire drawings featuring various body parts including feet, hands and eyes. This anatomical sculpture is modelled on the feet of Ryder’s daughter, Nell, and represents the bodies of two sleeping people. With these large-scale representations, Ryder is able to express human emotion through the art of body language.
The scale of her sculpture has increased dramatically over the years, and Sleeping Feet represents a pivotal point of monumentality in her work. Working at this size requires a fascinating degree of technical skill, as each piece is transformed from a two-dimensional sketch in pencil into a three-dimensional wire creation. Ryder begins this task by constructing a basic armature, which is supported by steel rods to add strength. Then, the original structure is covered with chicken wire upon which she adds rolled, moulded sections of thicker wire to create shape and form.
Even at their most dense, these sculptures possess an element of transparency, allowing us to see through and beyond the work, adding a layer of fragility to their robust materiality. Writer Sue Hubbard described this quality in her essay ‘The Language of Self’, in the exhibition catalogue for Sophie Ryder at Yorkshire Sculpture Park in 2008: “The wire ‘skin’ of the hare is much less dense, leaving the supporting armature visible in the manner that pencil lines might be left to indicate an artist’s thinking in a drawing. The work has a new monumentality. It is no longer simply a hare but something architectural; a dwelling that can be entered and walked through.”
In a landscape setting, this transparency allows the viewer to see the rolling hills or grassy knolls, merging site with sculpture. Here, the white gallery walls create a new clarity, allowing us glimpses of an eye or a hand, or a fellow visitor, and the work becomes a monument to humanity rather than nature.
Upside Down Kneeling
Ryder’s work is concerned with multiplicity. Characters are often drawn first, appearing on paper or canvas before being fully realised in other more robust
shapes and forms. This creates an interesting dialogue in Ryder’s work between scale and materiality. The image of Upside Down Kneeling can be seen in various incarnations reproduced in pencil, charcoal, plaster, bronze and wire. The act of physically reproducing the same character in the same pose is interesting in itself, but when we focus on the particular relationship between its plaster and bronze variations it opens up a fascinating topic of discussion which is best addressed through process and technique.
Ryder creates her plaster figures by first creating a steel armature which is then wrapped in chicken wire. Newspaper and wood shavings are then dipped in plaster and applied to the shape creating a second-skin. The final form is then sculpted into being through the use of a hammer and chisel creating a rough surface texture, ready to be moulded and cast in bronze. Throughout the process the work takes on numerous ‘lives’ with each layer; wire, plaster, mould and bronze portraying a different stage. In turn each new ‘life’ acts as a monument to the old, adding to it a new layer of history.
In its plaster form Upside Down Kneeling already possesses a past, rich in memory. Here, in Monumental, the theme of multiplicity runs through all layers of the exhibition as creatures appear in multiple mediums and sizes, characters develop and re-appear in different narrative guises, and each piece carries with it a tiny fragment of the last, creating a shrine to Ryder’s prolific productivity.
Image Credit: Blue Eye, Sophie Ryder, photograph © Alice Hendy.