Anders Herwald Ruhwald: In the Woods

Opening: Friday, Feb 23, 2024 5 – 8 pm
Friday, Feb 23 – Apr 6, 2024

1709 W. Chicago Ave.
Chicago, IL 60622

There are many mysteries behind Thoreau’s life by a remote mass of New England water while he was sharply observing the surrounding flora and fauna for his eventually seminal book Walden. The pastoral equilibrium was his laboratory within his very particular timeframe—a simplified life in a rapidly industrializing 19th-century American landscape was the lure. But what did he fantasize about throughout those long nights? Who did he miss the most when the flowers blossomed by the pond or with the snow dressing the pine trees? When did he question the plausibility of his determination when wildlife roamed around his home? 

The naturalist philosopher’s book partially lifts the curtain to some of the unknowns during his lonesome lodging, but some mysteries are never to be unveiled—and like a tulle lace over an allusive face, the very agent of the enigma can indeed lend itself to beauty. Anders Herwald Ruhwald’s fifteen ceramic Thoreau busts—each titled My head in your head - Forehead, Nose variation, do not seek answers; they rather wander through the fulfilled curiosities as well as unanswered urges of man who strived for a return to the nature within a rapidly transforming society. The sculptures radiate light in their blinding sheen and bewilder with their generously shed humanoid features. They are monuments of innate failures and earned glories of the human drive—of men who have taken up the chivalry of explorerdomfor what they are convinced is awaiting discovery out in the wilderness. 

The self-proclaimed scouter archetype is abundant across the dusty spines of the encyclopedias. Among those who punctured the lands and their people with entitled intrusiveness, some even had their monuments placed in cities around the world. Thoreau was not such a man—he was rather more of a romantic, a benign nose-poker into the equilibrium. He was an early cut of the curious modernist, always adventuring into the more difficult trail to plunge himself deeper into the wild. Flexing the muscles of his masculine genealogy with a dare against Mother Nature was perhaps a part of the thrill as well. He was the original urban camper, the city animal in desperate need of an oxygen getaway. But Thoreau was also a daydreamer, perhaps a little naive about his expectations from the pond life. His curiosity remained kinetic against the insistent placidness of the water. A well of possibilities was perhaps what he saw looking deeper into its subtle undulations. 

In Herwald Ruhwald’s busts, Thoreau is represented in a broad color palette. Nature’s own hues, such as azure, teal, ebony, and olive, wash the breakable musings of his likeness. The liquid finish of the ceramic surfaces resembles the pond’s dancing first layer, as much as a mercurial elixir sculpting itself into an army of emotion-free heads. Beyond the neutrality of their absent features, they are alchemies of seriousness and irony, of the funny and the absolute. The sculptures are anti-monuments; towered by us, they are vulnerable, not only for their fragile materiality but through their stripped-down emotions.

The display at the gallery urges us to meander through them; we fluctuate between amusement and pity for their shiny aloofness. The realization of a probability begins to linger: the busts might be us as much as Thoreau. Like blank canvases waiting for the painter’s generous brushstroke, they are available for us, to be completed with our own über-modern Homo sapien fascinations and delusions. Today, whispers of an inviting nature are what we yearn to hear, the rubbing of the leaves to each other, and the birds’ chirping of the spring songs. Each blank visage is one of us, shopping at a high-end camp gear store or booking the next glamping escapade. Look behind our grid posts and dinner party small talks where the earth suffers through her unfolding collapse. 

Herwald Ruhwald does not seek answers—or he even avoids the questions. He instead lights up small fires alongside his busts. Four gently slim and generously stretched candleholders, each titled Bee Stump, are peppered around, with candles slowly burning their beeswax bodies. A sign—of a cycling life; of a rustling blaze; of an innate curiosity—the fire releases the immediacy of the moment as well as the slow demise of the honeybees’ bearings. The freely wavering surfaces of the glazed sculptures bud the slippery beeswax. The material transformation, however, blossoms in Pond Tree. This is a life-size glazed ceramic sapling with quintuple limbs that loosely tangle towards atop. Like a glorious wise tree, its serpentine branches are woven to forever unity. The knot is gently interrupted by a roll of red-dyed string tied on its end to a terra-cotta stone fragment that the artist found on one of Lake Michigan’s beaches. The show’s only singular work pays homage to a chapter in Thoreau’s book where he attempts to disprove the local belief that Walden was bottomless, immediately ensued in the text by the author’s own pondering about how our mind is in fact our very own endless pond. The winding red string hugs the ceramic arm like a desperate shipwreck survivor, or a snake cunningly sneaking around a branch. The sanguine thread is a lifeline through nature’s processes: a fibrous vein of softness touches the breezy surface of a once wet clay monumentalized forever by the vehement fire.

By Osman Can Yerebakan


Anders Herwald Ruhwald (born 1974, Denmark) lives and works in Chicago and Detroit. He graduated from the Royal College of Art in London in 2005. Ruhwald has had more than 30 solo exhibitions in the last 20 years in museums and galleries around the world including Indianapolis Museum of Art (USA), Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (UK), The Museum of Art and Design (Denmark), Casa Museo Asger Jorn (Italy) and MOCA Cleveland (USA). During the same time his work has been shown in more than 100 group shows at venues like Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (San Francisco), Fondation d’entreprise Richard (Paris), Denver Art Museum (USA), Taipei Yingge Museum (Taiwan) and Kunsthal Charlottenborg (Copenhagen).

In 2019 Ruhwald opened the permanent installation, “Unit 1: 3583 Dubois,” inside an apartment on Detroit’s east side. Ruhwald worked for six years on this immersive 7 room installation which considers the effects of fire in the context of the domestic and intimate. The installation is supported by the Knight Foundation, the Graham Foundation, the Danish Art Foundation, and the Gilbert Family Foundation.

Ruhwald's sculptures are represented in over 25 public museum collections including The Victoria and Albert Museum (UK), Los Angeles County Art Museum (USA), The Denver Art Museum (USA), The Art Institute of Chicago (USA), The Detroit Institute of Art (USA), Philadelphia Museum of Art (USA), Musée des Arts Décoratifs (France), The National Museum (Norway), The Museum of Art and Design (Denmark), and Taipei Yingge Museum (Taiwan).

Image: Anders Herwald Ruhwald, My head in your head - Forehead, Nose variation #9, 2024