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Allowing the wood to speak

In using parts of trees as the raw material for sculpture, David Nash has by no means ignored the character of trees themselves - particularly when leafless in winter - as natural kinds of ''sculpture.''

''The tree,'' he has said, ''becomes a quarry of new possibilities.'' And while sculptors of the last twenty or thirty years working in a constructional mode (sculptors, that is, who join, link, or relate units to make a new whole) have often turned to industrial or man-made materials, Nash is one who has ''returned to nature.'' But this is not merely a question of using wood rather than steel or plastic. He has deliberately chosen not to forget that the origin of a material traditionally standardized and seasoned, cut and glued, joined and fastened, sanded and polished into sculpture or furniture, is in fact a living and growing tree. Whatever other wealth of meaning a work like ''Standing Frame'' has, it is instantly recognized as branch and trunk. The original function of its parts remains undisguised. Its limbs - probably useless waste to a carpenter - have not been severed and so reduced to residual knots on utilitarian planks or blocks of wood: they have been seen and used as no less essential to the sculpture than they were to the tree, though their function has been altered.

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The sculptor has certainly sawn and joined and placed, but he has not (in this case) worked at his materials to the point where the sculpture dominates its primal components, or where the importance of his individual vision or touch has achieved all-absorbing significance. Nash is, perhaps, a sculptor who allowsm as much as he wills.

However, his cooperative approach to his materials is far from passivity. His work treads a line somewhere between documented ''land art'' and abstract sculpture. He tends not to push either aspect of it to a logical extreme - very happily managing a synthesis of two worlds. Having, as it were, his tree, and eating it. For one thing, when he shows his work in a gallery, it does not become dependentm on this urban and uncongenial space for its surprising effect on the viewer: it is not redefined by context. Instead it has a disarming authenticity which transforms a neutral indoor space, bringing into it an air of work, of process, of fresh encounter, of idiosyncratic humour, of life outdoors, of improvisation.

Using unseasoned wood and deliberately working it only in a rough and simple way, joining it without force or rigidity, he is, above all, refusing to impose on his materials some kind of timelessness. Hugh Adams has written that Nash feels ''the object . . . must tell its story, and by this he means its origin, its colour, its cracking, its change.'' Although the tree (in this work, beech) has been cut, trimmed, reorganized, the sculptor wants clearly to allow for its past and its future: a past vitally formed by its species and its growing, a future as maturing timber, subject to processes of drying out, splitting, flaking, opening up, and so forth.

''Earlier,'' he wrote, ''I used the regular standard units from the woodmill, but I found them dumb as they did not tell of their origin, nor their destination. Now I get along better by going to the tree and responding to its time and space and to the circumstances of its being there and my being there. Size and length, cold and wet, far from home, all contribute to the situation.''

He has decided that the ideal place for his work is, in fact, ''where it is made.'' And although, as with ''Standing Frame'' (shown here installed at the Kroller Muller Museum, Holland), he accepts the possibility of displaying his sculpture in galleries, a number of his works are permanently installed where they were made, in open landscape or in woods. Some are ''cooperative'' to the extent of their being actually planted and rooted, with the sculptor in such cases being plantsman and pruner. His own part in such works is decisively terminated at a given point, and the work is then subject to its own growing, and to the vagaries of weather. The elements, though, are seen by Nash as a positive aspect of all his outdoor works, and not as a threat to his vision or a negation of some original and quasi-permanent intent.

His view of the artist's role seems to be a close experience of nature, as a means to the end of a new object, and then the acceptance of this object's independent - and not overprotected - future.