Years ago, when writing another piece on the sculptor, David Nash, I went to visit him at Capel Rhiw, his home and studio in a converted Methodist Chapel in Blaenau Ffestiniog, a dour village set high in the Welsh hills surrounded by slag heaps of slate. It has been his home since 1968 when he left, what he felt to be, the materialistic south-east where he had been born and bred. He had fallen in love with the valley after spending holidays there as a boy, roaming with his brother. The place is very important to him and to his work. It takes a long time to get there. On the last lap you have to take a tiny train that winds up through the folded hills where streams tumble into the valleys. But the slowing of pace, the sense of going on a journey is an appropriate mindset through which to view David Nash’s work.
One of the first things he did was to take me to a stream in the Cynfal Valley where he had pushed a rough hewn wooden boulder over a waterfall into a stream. Black and water-logged, it had become stuck below a bridge and had been there for months. It looked just like another dark rock. From 1978-2004 Nash visited his wooden boulder regularly, documenting its progress. It has been covered in snow and ice, has remained in one place for years at a time washed by the icy stream and baked in the occasional sun, until one day it was swept away by floods to rest on a sand bank in the Dwyryd Estuary. In 2003 the tide floated it out to a salt marsh where it lurked like some dark lake monster in the shallows until, suddenly, it disappeared, no doubt washed out into the Irish Sea. Nash does not consider his boulder lost. “It is wherever it is,” he says, philosophically, though he still hunts for it. “My search is part of the work.”
The film Boulder by Pete Telfer forms the centre piece to this exhibition of Nash’s work at Tate, St. Ives and includes documentary footage that charts the progress of this large wooden sphere over twenty years. It encapsulates many of Nash’s most important themes: the notion of time, of evolution and life’s natural cycles, the nature of transformation, change and chance that evoke the Greek philosopher, Heraklitus’s, famous remark that we cannot step into the same river twice; that life is, in essence, a continuing journey.
David Nash has been working in wood for thirty years, mainly with broadleaf trees such as oak, beach, ash, lime, cherry, elm and birch, choosing each for its unique properties. Birch, for example, he describes as benign, feminine, yielding, a loving wood, while oak is a keos, very male, hard and resistant. When he hits it with an axe, it answers back, like carving stone. The sound of the blow keeps him attuned to the correctness of the cut. Lime is one of the best carving woods. It is slow growing with a purity of whiteness, it also has fantastic warping and cracking potential - processes of chance that are intrinsic tools in Nash’s sculptural repertoire.
For Nash context is all. He has made work especially to be sited outside – as can be seen in many of the sculpture parks around the country - as well as work for public and commercial spaces where he has to take into account the immediate architectural environment. Here he has found a sympathetic milieu among the St. Ives Modernists whose work is on show in a new hang in the first gallery. When Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth moved to Cornwall they were exploring the possibilities of non-representational art. By the thirties it had been stripped of all unnecessary decorative accretions. Hepworth described herself as “absorbed in the relationship in space, in size and texture and weight, as well as in the tension between forms”. Such sentiments could well describe David Nash’s work nearly eighty years later. He returns to the pared purity of the pyramid, the cube and the sphere again and again; universal forms that belong to all cultures and are owned by no one. His large charred and blackened Three Forms, Cube, Sphere, Pyramid, 2003/4 has an atavistic presence that dominates the small gallery and contains echoes of the ancient henges scattered across the surrounding Cornish landscape.
Three Charred Panels of beech have been hung like a triptych. The cuts in each are vertical, diagonal and horizontal. Against the white wall they have a severe minimalist beauty, for black absorbs light rather than giving it back. Scorching has long been an important process for Nash. It has a practical as well as a semi-mystical purpose. Fire both cauterises and purifies. For despite the earthy muscularity of his work he has, over the years, been much influenced by the philosophy of Rudolph Steiner, by Plato’s vision of reincarnation and Tao Tai Ching, a form of Buddhism. Charring removes the narrative history of the living wood, erasing what he considers to be the aesthetic distraction of the grain. As carbon, the sculptural form can be viewed with greater clarity. Charring is also associated with the transformations that occurred in mediaeval alchemy when two opposing elements are heated in a crucible to produce a new synthesis. The phoenix rising from the ashes is an alchemical symbol of renewal and rebirth; themes that occur subtly but insistently throughout Nash’s work. For as the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard wrote in The Psychoanalysis of Fire, “Fire is the ultra-living element. It is intimate and it is universal … Among all phenomena, it is really the only one to which there can be so definitely attributed the opposing values of good and evil”.
The cuts and tools used are also crucial. Nash’s preferred implement is the electric chain saw, which he wields with the fluency of the painter’s brush. The scores he leaves on the raw wood evoke the painter’s marks. In his totemic Crack and Warp Column, 2003 he has very nearly sliced through the thick trunk of lime to form thin leaves or sheets, which as they dry buckle and warp. The splits, knots and cracks in the unseasoned wood and the slips of the saw are all left visible. As a young man Nash was deeply influenced by the simplicity of Brancussi’s forms. He likes to quote one of his aphorisms that in art the “simple” is very “complex”. He also has a respect for his peers who work within the environment: Richard Long, Hamish Fulton and Andy Goldsworthy; artists who in another age might have become landscape painters, but who wanted to be absorbed in the actual physical world.
In the seventies Nash saw how David Smith had developed a fluency of language using metal and wanted to do the same with wood. He insists, though, he is not a wood ‘craftsman,’ though a ‘truth to materials’ is essential. He likes his wood raw, unpolished and pure. It is the poetry and geometry of movement that is of interest. “Geometry represents an order in nature or path for me,” he has said, “like my line of cut”. It is both human order and a process of understanding. Works such as Capped Block, 1998 and Extended Cube, 1996 expand our concept and understanding of universal forms. The wood is cut away and the cubes dismantled and extended into space, rather like the segments of a telescope. Volume is dramatically increased. He is, he says, very satisfied – as Moore and Hepworth discovered – when he can see through, in and around a form. Beauty exists in that simple rightness, the truth of it. Although such a sentiment smacks of a Keatsian Romanticism, Nash somehow manages to meld this vision with the more conceptual elements of a work like Wooden Boulder. That is his skill. He may be a Romantic at heart, but his head is that of a Modernist.
Even though the sculptures in the curved, sea-facing gallery - which includes the vertical Sheaves; Elm Frame, Fourteen Cuts and the powerful yet maternally enfolding Coil – seem a little squashed in the comparatively small space, there is also a certain rightness to their placement in relationship to the sea; like great logs of driftwood or planks from wrecked ships, they feel as if they could have recently been washed up on Porthmeor Beach just outside the window. Earth, air, fire and water. All these four basic elements exist in Nash’s work.
Working away from the metropolis, in his remote Welsh chapel amid the slate slag heaps of the Ffestiniog Valley, David Nash has been able to hold onto that rare commodity, integrity. It may be desperately unfashionable, but he believes that there is a moral requirement involved in the practice of art, a necessary level of consciousness as to how what an artist makes affects the world. He speaks of his own feelings when he came across Richard Serra’s great big torque pieces for the first time. The tenderness he felt. In the end that is what he wants to transmit through these great chunks of hacked, sawn, cut and burnt wood, wood that, like us, has lived and died; a certain tenderness.
David Nash Making and Placing Abstract Sculpture 1978-2004 at the Tate St Ives from 20 May to 26 September 2004