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David Nash Carves His Art in a Love Affair With Wood

July 11, 1994|LEAH OLLMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

One of the legendary events in David Nash's life as a sculptor occurred in 1970, the same year the British-born artist settled in an industrial town in North Wales. Moving away from the jaunty towers of found and painted wood that he had built in art school, he began carving green wood--nine rough spheres out of a fresh chunk of ash. He put them aside for a time and when he rediscovered them, each bore a broad crack of a smile, courtesy of the effects of air and time.

Nash's epiphany, that the wood "continued to work for me after I had stopped working," is echoed in one of the more recent works in "David Nash: Voyages and Vessels," currently at the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego. "Cracking Box" (1990), made from thick oak panels and dowels, can't boast a single right angle. Its walls warp and flip and its edges dip and dive into notches formed, presumably, by air and time. Like the cracked balls from over two decades ago, the box quietly but forcefully testifies to the latent power of wood, its enduring energy and surprisingly independent spirit.

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Wood has been Nash's favored material for all of those 25 years, and his relationship with it shifts between playful curiosity and an affinity almost symbiotic in its intensity. Out of trees already destined to be cut, he coaxes a variety of moods--buoyant, meditative, stern and sly. This show, organized by Graham Beal, director of the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, slights Nash's whimsical side, but otherwise delivers a good, compact survey of the artist's work of the last decade. At his best, Nash seems not to be imposing his voice on an inert mass, but to be letting wood speak for itself, expose its humor and dignity, its frailties and absolute honesty.

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Nash came of age during Minimalism's reign of machine-tooled sterility, but he opted instead for a raw art of roots, splinters and rough edges. Several of his works pay a kind of cunning homage to the pared-down simplicity of the Minimalist cube. The cracked box, for instance, rebels against geometry with the pent-up energy of a caged fox. Another cube, neatly framed in ash, sprouts twigs from its inner edges, meandering branches that puncture the sanctity of the square with mellow humor.

The further Nash strays from the academic rigor of the sphere, cone and cube, the more lyrical and poignant his work becomes. Two of the slim bottomless boats he calls "vessels" seem to writhe along the gallery floor in a serpentine rhythm. Another plunges down into the cleft of a fragmented tree trunk--an airborne sea-going vessel suddenly rooted in the earth. His figurative works also adhere to an organic geometry: "Two Ubus" twists upward like courting snakes and "Two Charred Menhirs (King and Queen)" stands majestic, like dark, fluid ghosts in private conversation.

The elemental power of Nash's work stems from the purity of both his materials--wood, charcoal and paper--and his forms, primarily circles, columns, cubes, chairs, tables and standing human figures. Except for the electric chain saw, the forces he uses to create his works are the most fundamental: fire, earth, air and water. When he selects a tree, he works with it continuously, camping nearby and burning small pieces for charcoal in stoves he constructs from materials on site. Photographs in the show document a series of such stoves made in Europe and Japan from stones, ice, bamboo, slate and peat.

For the current venue, Nash spent two weeks in San Diego sculpting six eucalyptus trunks into a series of vertically striated columns. Though the forms themselves are unremarkable, Nash tapered the columns to reveal several depths of the wood and its spectacular range of colors, from pale gold to a glowing, burnished red.

Nash has been lumped together with a generation of British sculptors, including Richard Long, Bill Woodrow, Tony Cragg and Antony Gormley, all of whom have had solo shows at this museum in recent years. The rift between nature and culture is one of the few common threads running through their work. Another is the attraction to recycling, either by creating something new out of castoff industrial junk or by making artworks that can ease back into the landscape without damaging it. Nash is of the latter camp and seems consistent in his practice of a highly moral ecology. He has engaged in a few long-term planted works--training a circle of ash trees to form a dome, or planting a grid of birch with trunks curving at opposing angles--but even these feel longer on soul than ego.

* Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, downtown location, Kettner and C streets, through Sept. 8.

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