On ViewMana Contemporary
June 3 – August 7, 2021
The sculptor and painter Ruth Hardinger arrived in New York from Iowa in the early 1970s. Given her experience of growing up in visually expansive farm country, she brought with her an essential focus on the experience of three-dimensional space. Over the years of living and working as an artist—primarily a sculptor—in New York, her reference to space merged with a strong commitment to environmentalism. Perhaps ironically, the materials most apparent in her work are those of urban detritus, namely cast concrete and corrugated cardboard, a somewhat unusual combination that is difficult to maneuver together. Even so, Harding has been able to conceive a broad range of highly unpredictable forms from these materials. One of the anticipatory delights of this vast, nearly overwhelming, survey of Hardinger’s work on view at Mana Contemporary in Jersey City is coming to terms with this remarkable formal diversity.
At various times, Hardinger associated with minimalist artists such as Robert Morris and with pioneers of process art and scatter art. Her current exhibition, encompassing 19 galleries and 113 works, might be read as a series of extraordinary, even indelible, interventions involving cast and assembled sculptures. I find it difficult to simplify or label this work as “installation art.” Somehow the term does not fit. Rather the structures that occupy these intensified spaces at Mana incite feelings of hyper-sensitivity, impossible to categorize through any specific artistic means or style. They are simply outside the boundaries of what might be called art-historical attribution.
At the outset of the exhibition, we are confronted with a work titled Earth and My New York Rocks (2017–18) that is constructed with earth shale rocks, milk cartons, and graphite. It is situated above another work, titled Layers Rise/Rising Pathways (2016–17) and assembled in cast concrete using corrugated cardboard with the addition of graphite, plaster, marble dust, and acrylic paint, all mounted on shale rocks and precast blocks. As we turn to the left, we find Mana’s Glassdoor gallery, in which we encounter 23rd Envoy (2011), in concrete and cardboard, and Envoy Exert (2013) in concrete and rope. These two works are juxtaposed with another, titled Carriage Constellation (2010), involving plaster forms suspended with rope. As one proceeds through the exhibition, there are many more “Envoys” included in the show, generally constructed with cast concrete using cardboard that remains visible as part of the work.
Hardinger studied painting with Theodoros Stamos at the Art Students League and later earned a BA in classical studies and ancient Greek at Hunter College. However, she credits many of her most important lessons to trips taken to Italy and Greece, where she became engrossed in the ancient structures surrounding her. During these visits Hardinger encountered classicism not only as an ideational perfection of form but as the traces and remnants of form that persist in the ruins left behind. It would appear that this idea is carried over by the artist in her use of cardboard as variable molds for casting concrete that she allows to remain present in the finished work, sometimes materially, while at other times as an imprint. In either case, the cardboard is an essential visual component bound within her decisive forms. This original process is exemplified by works like 18th Envoy (2010) and Six Conundrums (2013). In both works, the cardboard represents not only the process used in shaping the forms, but also the final resolution of their conception and construction.
Until recently, when it was discovered that Hardinger was experiencing clinically progressive memory loss, the artist often traveled to Mexico, where she studied Mayan and other Mesoamerican cultures, especially their myths and iconographies. She took a vivid interest in indigenous crafts and collaborated on a number of tapestries. On some level, Hardinger’s idiosyncratic understanding of the classical aesthetic is manifested just as powerfully in pre-Columbian civilization as in ancient Greece. Much of the retrospective currently on view at Mana Contemporary in Jersey City—the first survey of the artist’s work that covers the entirety of her 50-year career—provides us a window into this highly personal approach to the ancient past.
Guest curated by Xiaokun Sunny Qiu, this exhibition has a majestic appearance that is all its own. The works are revelatory and complex in their ingenuity and in their sense of completeness. Much of this is due to the extraordinary research, insight, and tireless energy given to the installation of these works by the curator, who consistently emphasizes the spiritual aspects in the artist’s practice. What may have felt like an impossible undertaking at the outset eventually became an ingenious celebration of art, a major statement on what is still possible in the imagination of human beings, regardless of the mental and physical challenges they must confront. In this exhibition, art transcends all that has been said about it. Ruth Hardinger is an artist who makes that clear.