Art shaped by the weather

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`I HAVE become aware of how Nature is in a state of change and how that change is the key to understanding. I want my art to be sensitive and alert to changes in material, season and weather.'' British artist Andy Goldsworthy (born in 1956) wrote this in his foreword to a book of his ``photoworks'' published in 1985, called ``Rain, sun, snow, hail, mist, calm.'' J.M.W. Turner might have said something not dissimilar. But Goldsworthy's art, though not without its own sort of romanticism vis-`a-vis nature, is very different from the 19th-century painter's.

For one thing, Goldsworthy's images, whether they can be described as basically sculptural or concerned with things that painting is often involved with, have so far been made of materials that are much more fragile and fugitive than bronze or oil paint or even some of the improvised and impermanent materials with which 20th-century art has already familiarized us.

He works largely out-of-doors. Not only are such materials as icicles, fallen snow, beach sand, foxglove leaves, meadow grass stalks, wood pigeon feathers, and bracken fronds his kind of media, but also they remain for the most part as vulnerable to weather, to wind, thaw, downpour, or incoming tides as they were before he used them - or borrowed them - for his own ends. His aims are serious, his inventiveness notably agile, his observation surprising, but his materials are like those of childhood games: ice, snow, pebble, and twig. Children make snowmen, sand castles, daisy chains. Goldsworthy, working in the reference frame of today's environment art (a current exhibition including his work with that of other artists exploring similar lines dubs it ``The Unpainted Landscape''), challenges the notion that the values of art and vision are incompatible with infantile or primitive procedures. This is in itself hardly a new stance in 20th-century art, of course.

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What is different in Goldsworthy's case, perhaps, is the degree, even the intensity, of impermanence. From things he has written it is clear that he actually relishes the quick responses the changeableness of nature, of weather and season, demands. ``Sometimes,'' he has written, ``a work is best when most threatened by the weather.''

Though he also claimed rather firmly in 1985, ``These limitations that I work under are not set rules and I will not be bound by them. I have ... welcomed the ... opportunity ... to make sculpture that will last longer,'' nevertheless work after work shows that he likes unpredictability, and his fondness for deep black holes in his sculptures (see ``Foxglove leaves ...'') has developed because they question his ``concept of stability'' and make him ``aware of potent energies within the earth.''

He seems exhilarated as well as frustrated when he has been caught by warmer conditions halfway through the making of an ice or snow work; when stalks have been blown away by a sudden gust as he arranges them over one of the holes in the ground; when a hollow spire of chestnut leaves ``supported by its own architecture'' with ``centre veins joined with thorns'' and ``stitched with thin snowberry twigs,'' as his photographs show (with a strange mixture of comedy and poignancy), ``soon went limp and fell over.''

HIS work comes closest to that of some of the other landscape artists of today when he uses stone or wood. Parallel concerns with such other British artists as Richard Long and David Nash suggest themselves. These materials have also made it possible for him to work in a more ambitious size (gallery support, patronage, a cottage-studio in Scotland as well as various working trips to such far-flung places as Japan, Australia, Arizona, and France are now likely to further such ambitions).

With stones or pebbles he makes structures or arrangements like cairns or cones, spirals or balancing-acts. The ``Stone Cone,'' made in Cumbria in 1986, shows, however, the extent to which his love of the uncertain, of the shifting ground beneath the feet, applies even to his use of this material. Like drystone walling, the form was made (and remade in his London gallery, Fabian Carlsson Gallery, for an exhibition this summer) without any form of mortar or cement.

His photograph of it emphasizes its apparent precariousness: It balances up there, not like a monument to withstand the centuries, but barely poised on the edge of an avalanche of the loose stone from which it is built. At the same time it does seem likely to withstand change with more success than a structure of stalks or feathers pinned to the earth with thorns.

Goldsworthy documents the works which he wants to remember (or wants remembered) with fine color photographs. They are by no means snapshot records. They perpetuate and enlarge the particular achievement, and they emphasize and perhaps glamorize his various explorations of color in leaf, stone, petal, and stalk. His written notes are laconic and practical but have a kind of undeliberate poetry. They make the rather private acts of his art available for others to share.

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