Sophie Ryder: Monumental


Remember the huge sculptures of hares that sprang up in Bath a couple of years ago? Well, the artist, Sophie Ryder, is back with even more monumental pieces at Bristol’s RWA.

There is a distinct multiplicity to Sophie Ryder’s work, achieved through the use of different media and techniques to represent repeated forms, most notably hares. By including many mediums, attention is drawn to the processes used to make the work. This gives Ryder’s art a memory – a memory of what it has been and where it has come from. The emphasis on the artistic process is important because it adds to the prominent presence of the artist within the work; Ryder is not only the creator but also the subject matter of many pieces because the sculptures are modelled upon her own body. She is simultaneously inside and outside of the artwork, dualities are constantly at play.

The exhibition is full of ‘internal’ echoes in terms of forms, themes, processes and production. Some pieces are repeated with subtle differences while others experience huge changes in scale. The viewer feels enclosed in a world of repetition. The changes make us see each form in a slightly different way, an effect of defamiliarisation. Ryder plays with our senses, questioning the act of ‘seeing’ and thwarting expectations by constantly showing shapes anew. Indeed, there is always an element of surprise, pushed to the verge of discomfort most pertinently in her installation Temple to the 200 Rabbits.

Ryder’s work specifically asks us to question and think afresh about the form and structure of the female human body. Often, Ryder combines a female body with the head – or mask – of a hare, an uncertain identity that ignites the curiosity of the viewer. The anatomy is slightly distorted, an increased limb length or muscle bulk to convey the athletic power associated with hares. This destabilizes preconceptions about female physicality as weak and delicate. By both evoking and challenging different myths a contradictory sense of being is created, giving these sculptures a sense of fragility and liminality. Their vulnerability is increased because the figures are simultaneously exposed to the viewer’s curiosity and hidden from it by the (literal and metaphorical) masks they wear.

The hares appear introverted; they are either in dialogue with another body (often that of a dog), or concerned with – and enclosed within – their own forms. Many of them are caught in moments of embrace or dance. We see them caught up in their own inner worlds, encourageing the viewer to imagine these worlds and engage with the artwork creatively.
The prominence, and even interrogation, placed upon the body emphasizes the physicality of the Ryder’s work. Though it seems drenched in mythology (such as those surrounding hares, or the female body and fertility), reality and materiality are exposed too. This not only adds to the complexity of the pieces and their meanings, but also emphasizes the tension between being ‘inside’ and ‘outside’, where one is torn between two different states of being. In this way, the hare sculptures hint not only at the multiplicity of character but also to dichotomies of being and becoming, the real and theatrical, and authenticating and performing experience.

Sitting Lady Hare Wall Piece is the only sculpture in the exhibition in a fragmented form – all the other sculptures have rounded, finished appearances regardless of whether they depict a whole figure or just a limb or detail (such as Nell’s Eye orSleeping Feet). Sitting Lady Hare Wall Piece therefore conveys a sense of transience – of simultaneously being present and yet only in part. It looks like it could disintegrate at any moment.

The artworks in Monumental resonate powerfully with one another, constantly unsetting and refocusing the eye. There is much to take in and think about. Many connections are waiting to be made between not only the works themselves, but also between art and life, art and mythology, and the human and non-human (or even non-humane).

Mary Fedden and Sophie Ryder: a comparison of their work and styles in the two current RWA exhibitions

I volunteer at the RWA and during one of my shifts I was inspired to write about works of art from the gallery’s two current exhibitions. This article was published on the RWA blog:

The two latest exhibitions on show at the RWA (Sophie Ryder: Monumental and Picturing Arcadia, featuring Mary Fedden) suggest that both the artists Fedden and Ryder are concerned with depicting animal traits and the meeting of human beings with nature. Ryder uses female bodies morphing with hares, (her signature animal forms), to explore this meeting, while Fedden sets her interaction within a biblical-like scenario by focusing on a flock of sheep.

Boldness and simplicity are characteristics of much of Fedden’s work. Objects are painted almost using blocks of colour and minimal detail, suggesting the object’s essence or presence is conveyed rather than a demandingly ‘busy’ or intricate reproduction. Furthermore, the confident and almost minimalistic sculptural quality of the objects is partly created by the stark shading, and dramatic juxtaposition of light and dark areas. This pushes objects out into the picture plane and makes them appear tactile and rounded. Each object appears boldly in front of the viewer to be studied separately.

However, although the figure and sheep in Fedden’s painting ‘Goats in Gozo’ 1988 in the Picturing The Arcadia exhibition are boldly represented with dark shadows and contrasts, it is more the manipulation of perspective and emphasis on ‘flatness’ of style that gives them their boldness and simplicity. There is no depth or vanishing point in this painting, so the sheep appear to float around the canvas. They are almost objects of the imagination, hovering in a location somewhere between the viewer and the painting, and not adhering to normal rules of space and time. As they are not held together in a recognisable space this leads to a fragmentary tension between each of the figures presented.

These characteristics of boldness and simplicity are also found in Ryder’s sculptures and drawings. Ryder’s work presents parts of the human anatomy (such as feet, eyes and hands) as objects in their own right. In this way, they take on a life of their own and are – literally – unattached to any greater whole. The fact that they are recognisable, commonplace objects adds to their simplicity and boldness, as well as simultaneously creating surprise that they have been ‘disentangled’ from a larger figure (or limb) of which they are normally a part. Like with Fedden’s work, there is a sense of fragmentation created by this element of surprise. However, unlike in Fedden’s paintings, this also sets up a dialogue between presence and absence.

Similarly, the feeling of being in an imaginative world is keenly felt in all of Ryder’s work that draws upon mythology. The mythology surrounding hares and the female body is most clearly represented. Ideas of both power and vulnerability in regards to these myths are explored, creating an interesting dialogue. For example, both the hares and female figures convey a profound sense of tenderness. Hugging is a particularly prominent motif. This could suggest an uplifting power born out of being connected, loved and understood by each other. Indeed, each sculpture is acknowledged by another, so the feeling of tenderness resonates throughout the exhibition. However, hugging and huddling are repeatedly portrayed as similar, and even overlapping, actions in many of the works. This idea of huddling gives the work its vulnerable edge.

This juxtaposition of power with vulnerability helps to raise questions about the differences and similarities between woman and animal, myth and truth, and imagination and reality. This suggests the use of imagination – largely represented by the emphasis on mythology – has a more specific source, in Ryder’s work than in Fedden’s (where the imagination is used to create a more general sense of atmosphere and space).

Due to these multiple similarities and differences, it is exciting and thought provoking (if not unusual) to have work by these artists shown at the same time across the RWA’s two current exhibitions. Both artists are concerned with presenting objects in surprising and confident ways to help the viewer see them afresh and think about the figures depicted, as well as the potentials of the materials used.