Place is the essence of David Nashs sculpture. Where it is, is paramount, this English artist says of his work. Then he adds, almost as an aside: And what it is, can actually be quite loose.
Loose is somewhat the character of unseasoned wood, his preferred material. His pieces retain the character of trees trunk, branch, and even in the early ones twigs though resurrected, through his vision and work on them, as art.
This work involves cutting, carving, and, in some works, charring by fire. The green wood cracks and warps as the sculptures dry out. He does not attempt to invest them with a kind of physical eternality, immured against time. No preciosity for him. His sculptures chip easily, but he is unconcerned. He calls them stuff you can really chuck about.
Some of his outdoor works rot away. Moss may be encouraged to grow over them; some are like steps, meant to be eroded by feet; others are subject to seasons and elemental forces. One, for example, is a massive boulder axed from the thick end of a felled oak and rolled into a stream. Since 1978, it has been shifting, very sporadically, down the hillside.
And some of his works are quite literally rooted and growing, still part of natures time cycle.
Nashs sculptures are in 80-plus public collections worldwide. He has shown them in the United States, Japan, Australia, and across Europe. His original motivation came from something he felt as an art student at Londons Kingston College in the 1960s. He remembers being infuriated by the notion that a sculpture had to be so strong, and of such integrity and logic, that it didnt matter where it was.
Instead, his aim is for a sculpture to be a dialogue between where it is and what it is. He tries to acknowledge in his work the fact that whatever man does has reverberations in the environment natural, and also social and economic.
When he stages an exhibition, he first studies the space, and then his work for the show (unless it is lent from his own collection, housed in his crowded ex-chapel studio in Blaenau Ffestiniog, north Wales) is made on the spot. It grows, he says, out of the circumstances I find near the museum a tree in a park, on a farm, or different types of wood. I ask myself, What can I do in this space?
An early inspiration for working in this manner was the famed instance of American sculptor David Smith, who went to Voltri, Italy, in 1962 and made 26 steel sculptures in 28 days. With a deadline, and dedicated assistants, Nash, too, can produce a surprising number of works in a two or three-week blast like one gesture.
He says: Youve got to kick-start it and then its rolling.... I may use something Ive made before to get me going. As soon as the whole activity is going, then anything is possible. Even off-cuts present themselves as potential pieces. Im making this form here and I need to get this off here, and that off and that. Hes not looking at these off-cuts, but at the main, intended form.
Then when I stand back, I find these three shapes that are not planned.... And I can make something of these three together. They will, in a way, suggest themselves.
NASH and I sit on coarse bolsters in a hut in a woodland he owns. This wood contains some of the works he has not so much made as planted: an ash dome, a Celtic wall of sycamores, a circle of oaks. These are living sculptures, tended, pruned, and persuaded by woodsmanship and other techniques to develop into intended forms. The ash dome is now 20 years old, a ring-dance of leaning trunks branching over into a light-filtering canopy of leaves.
The hut is his oracle hut a Nash version of a charcoal-burners shelter. It is good, he finds, for quieting high-powered businessman clients. It also gives him a bolt hole from his hectically successful career.
With Nash, egotism does not rule. He thinks of his work more as a response than an invention. Inspiration may come during a conversation when something has just clicked at the back of my mind and come forward a structural thing, perhaps. He may think suddenly, Yes, I could make a work out of that. He says: You have to be loose and alert enough to hear it happening. And you must make a note of it immediately, or itll fade.
Part of his philosophy, also, is to go with what happens with the process so that when a piece turns out not as he intended, he finds it really interesting ... a kind of discipline on myself to say: Dont act immediately to change it.... See what it is speaking back at me.
Although he lives in a remote area, his isolation is matched by his deliberate availability. His policy is to be as public as possible. He even calls himself a showman.
He is alert to the expectation of other people who love the work.... Theres a responsibility there, if I am going to move the work on, of actually being able to communicate the moving on of that work.
AS Nash talks about his motives, it is clear that what he is about is a balance. A balance of feeling and doing, of the contemplative and the dynamic, of inner and outer. Many of his sculptures are like images of this search for balance between inner and outer. He talks of quarrying them. He works into them, often with a chain saw, cutting their annular rings, mining their growth, exposing the passage of time inherent in their structure.
His love affair with trees with wood might be better called a life affair. To a degree not felt in this writers encounters with many other artists, with Nash there is an inextricable parallelism, a symbiosis, between his work and his life. We say an artists life is his work. His work-life his lifework.
Wood, Nash says, theres a lightness and a warmth to it. Those qualities that one naturally relates to as a human being toward wood are benign.
Not all his work is light and warm. His charred pieces can be monumentally dark. But to him their carbon surfaces make them more like stone than wood: the necessary obverse, perhaps, to a benign vision devoted to the sculptural potential of trees.
* David Nashs work can be seen at the Stdtische Museen,in Heilbronn, Germany, until Nov. 8. It will be on exhibit at Galerie Lelong in New York from Oct. 23 to Nov. 28.