The British sculptor David Nash did not take a typical career path when, at the age of 22, just after graduating from the Kingston College of Art and the Chelsea School of Art, he moved not to London where most of his contemporaries went but instead to Blaenau Ffestiniog, a quiet mining town in northern Wales. He says he moved there because it was cheap, and he took little time buying up a Methodist Chapel in the center of town, which he turned into both his home and his studio.
Having essentially taken himself off the grid — and away from the competitiveness of the London art scene — he began experimenting with the natural environment in unique and brutal ways, wielding tools like blowtorches, axes, and chainsaws to craft massive wooden sculptures. His larger-than-life works make nature seem oddly human. We see in them legs and phalli and fingers, his sculptural technique lending itself to anthropomorphizing.
In 1977, in his early 30s, he crafted one of his most famous works, “Ash Dome,” for which he planted ash trees in a circle and pruned them with a specific vision so that, as they grew, they would bend down and form a wooden dome together — the human harnessing of nature for basic survival. Today, as with other delicate artworks deep in the wild, like Walter De Maria’s “The Lightning Field” in New Mexico, in order to view “Ash Dome,” one is taken on an intentionally circuitous route and often even blindfolded. Few could point to a map and identify where Nash’s creation lies.
A year later, in 1978, “Wooden Boulder” pushed the limits of artistic categorization, at once a sculpture and a piece of performance art. After carving out a large ball of oak, Nash let his wooden sculpture roll down a waterfall on a mountainside near Blaenau Ffestiniog, until it was eventually taken by winds and rains into the Atlantic Ocean. It was lost in 2002, until (with brief sightings in 2003 and 2008), it was seen in an estuary of Dwyryd, a river in Gwynedd, about thirteen miles southwest of Blaenau Ffestiniog, in 2013. After heavy rains in 2015, the sculpture was dislodged from the estuary and hasn’t been seen since. But its significance remains strong. “Wooden Boulder underpins everything I do,” Nash told Christie’s. “It’s probably my most satisfactory statement as an artist.”
The work of the Surrey-born artist toes a bizarre boundary between esoteric and relatively unknown and wildly popular, given that his work has been featured prominently at the Kew Gardens in Queens, New York, at the Annely Juda Fine Art in London, and at various chateaux around France. In 1999, he was elected to the Royal Academy; in 2004, he was given an Order of the British Empire.
His last gallery exhibition at the Galerie Lelong & Co. in Paris, “Columns, Peaks and Torso,” showed in the summer of 2016. For his current exhibition there, simply called “Columns,” which is on until July 13, he has created drawings of the sculptural works previously exhibited. In a way similar to Richard Serra’s recent show at the Galerie Lelong & Co., Nash has attempted to translate his sculptures to drawings, such as with a two-and-a-half-foot-tall drawing called “Cut Trough Column,” 2017, which depicts the movement and interiority of a wooden sculpture, depicting it in a menacing red and black, with squiggling lines that imply an ascending movement.
In “Blue Column,” 2017, also a two-and-a-half-foot drawing on a paper, he abstracts five stacked rocks in blue in what the gallery calls an “artisanal stencil format.” There are also actual sculptures, such as “Tall Torso,” made of bronze and resembling the trunk of a tree that’s been burned, as if in a forest fire. But the exhibition, on the whole, seems more tailored to buyers of small- and medium-sized budgets, than to really pushing Nash’s creativity. (The works on show were created in tandem with Nash’s son.)
Later this summer, however, at the Fernet-Branca Foundation in the Alsatian region of France, Nash will have a more comprehensive show; and, in 2019, at the National Museum in Cardiff, he’ll have the full retrospective his varied oeuvre deserves. The exhibition on right now at the Galerie Lelong & Co. is an amuse-bouche, as we await the main course.
David Nash, “Columns,” at Galerie Lelong & Co., is on view through July 13. More information: http://www.galerie-lelong.com/en/