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Ruth Hardinger, Transcending Fields at Mana Contemporary

Ruth Hardinger, installation view. Courtesy of Mana Contemporary.

Ruth Hardinger: Transcending Fields 

Mana Contemporary

June 3 through August 7, 2021

By MARK BLACKWELL, August 2021

The text printed on the wall of Ruth Hardinger’s retrospective at Mana Contemporary describes her practice as a spiritual journey, but the show, installed in a labyrinthine space on the third floor of the 2 million square foot former factory, feels like a physical discovery as one stumbles through the myths and monuments of an unknown but familiar culture.

The first room is a jumble of knee-high concrete sculptures, some of them placed on cinderblocks, which you must consciously step around, all the while distracted by a (beautiful) piece which looks like the scales of a cataphract’s cuirass tumbling from the wall onto the floor, and striking works on (partially burned?) paper, bifurcated unevenly into black/white left/right, towering over you from head height. 

On the other side of the room behind glass several larger, starker concrete works stand upright and bear the traces of their corrugated cardboard molds. I was later told they are entitled Envoys. Like Stonehenge or the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey, they bring an inscrutable message from our future or past. 

The show has no wall-mounted labels and the QR codes are hard to find, and even harder to match to the many works, and this was a wise choice as it leaves the mystery intact. I was even glad to save the introductory text until after I had seen the show. As you weave through the long halls and the rooms, each chamber is a new find. You feel less like a viewer seeing a new series or period of the artist’s oeuvre, but more like more like Indiana Jones. In one very darkened interior section, there are two sculptures flanking a passage which are made of concrete donuts: one is three large donuts high, and gray. The other is much narrower blood red and undulates toward the ceiling, looking like the centipedes in David Cronenberg’s take on Naked Lunch. Through this room is another illuminated by tiny electric votive candles on the floor. You can barely make out the works on paper mounted high above you on the walls and are forced to use the flashlight on your phone. This seems hokey until you try it. I returned to the room three times to rediscover these cave paintings. It reminded me of the Herzog film Cave of Forgotten Dreams or the moment in the much-maligned Alexander in which Philip of Macedon holds a torch to wall-paintings and illuminates the myths for his son. These are red and ochre and indecipherable, appearing a little like simple hieroglyphs with dots and lines, the meaning lost for now. 

Ruth Hardinger, installation view. Courtesy of Mana Contemporary.

In several of the rooms facing the exterior, the rectangular forms of the black, white and gray works on paper surround concrete sculpture on the floor. There is a strange play between the concrete, rectangular lines of the industrial space, the casement windows, the gray skies on a rainy night, and the massive concrete warehouses on the other side of the courtyard. The venue and the work suit each other perfectly. In the final rooms – the show feels immense – you come upon more donut sculptures, these broken so you can see the gravel in the concrete with beautiful effect –and a series of breathtaking paintings. Hardinger studied painting with Theodoros Stamos, and these are a little reminiscent of Adolph Gottlieb’s Blasts or Mark Rothko. They fit perfectly with the spiritual mystery of the rest of the show. The last pieces are tapestries, or tapestry incorporated into concrete, which Hardinger learned in Mexico on a Fulbright Grant. They too feel like objects of a lost religion that maintain their magic nonetheless. The show’s few weak moments come when artifacts or devotional items are placed on a table with curtains, or suspended in a web of ropes. Organic or modern materials seem to compromise the apparent agelessness of the other works. 

Hardinger has had a long career in New York and Transcending Fields should help cement her legacy here. I knew nothing of her work when I arrived but left energized from the connection to the unknown or the unknowable which she seeks. WM 


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