What gives wood it’s colour?
Is craft ever Art, and is Art crafted?
These are the questions that come to me after attending the opening of Red, Black Other, a collection of works by sculptor David Nash at Mostyn Gallery this week.
Red, Black, Other is ‘the first exhibition to make an assessment of the nature of colour in his work’ – colour is not something I usually associate with Nash’s sculptural work, being more familiar with minimalist, pared-down form.
Nash’s ‘artistic interventions with nature’ are bold, sensitive, arguably sympathetic to inherent form and structure of the trees he selects to work with. Nash works with wood to reveal what some might call the ‘inner nature’ of the material, inherent in this is the colour and nature of the wood. This quality sometimes evokes a contemplative, meditative response to me, similar, say, to the effect of a late abstract Rothko: large, monolithic, which taps into a deeper level of meaning and understanding. David Nash works with time and chainsaws, through a transformative process, the work often following simple, geometric forms, reminiscent of Brancusi.
The last time I wrote about Nash’s work was as a student in the late 80s when I had to give a presentation on the influences in my own practice. Nash had very kindly allowed me to visit his studio and I had prepared a series of slides. I was hideously nervous, so made sure I did my presentation first, to ‘get it out of the way’: the same way I approach going to the dentist… At the time I was researching esotericland art; looking at Richard Long, Richard Serra, Andy Goldsworthy and others from that ‘environmental’ ouvre. The slides of Nash’s work showed large, charred monolithic pieces, strange forms of trunks reaching up to the light in the chapel studio in Blaenau. It was, and remains, an incredible space, in the valley beneath the gouged slatemines that dominate Blaenau Ffestiniog.
Shortly after that presentation I was a member of the Welsh International Snow Sculpture team, headed up by Pete Telfer working in Finland.
I was an utterly hopeless competitor, spending most of my time drinking outrageous 80% proof liquor with the French contestants, and flirting with the Canadian team. Pete was and is a film-maker, most recently directing and producing ‘A Force of Nature’
a beautiful documentary on Nash released by the BBC this year, coinciding with the massive presence of Nash’s work at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.
The film traces his long career, with fantastic footage across the decades, and across the range of ‘artistic interventions’ and directions within the work.
‘When you get into your seventies, you have to be direct’ says Nash in the film, and this new exhibition at the Mostyn is just that. Selected work is installed in the whole of the lower floor of the newly rebuilt gallery.
‘The Mostyn was built for this exhibition’ as Lord Dafydd Ellis Thomas put it, in the opening speech. You’d have to agree; the pieces sit within the space as though they were always meant to be there. There are early, drawings of that constructed tower, quiet, monolithic panels and fluid forms reaching to the sky. There is the black of charring, rich red of the untreated wood. Colour and form.
The opening is full and large, usually difficult in these situations to fully see and appreciate the work. However, these large pieces, so seemingly simple, have an unaccountable presence, strong and pervasive. It seems to me our glamorous chatter will come and go, and that monolithic panel of orange wood will stay after we are gone, having perhaps absorbed a little part of us, of time.
How you respond to the work perhaps, depends upon what you do. A craftsman may be outraged at a particular way the tree is cut, for example. The argument between art and craft may long be over, so it is peculiar to hear resonances of it again, after all this time.
It may seem a curious debate to raise itself, when Nash’s work is so evidently artistic in form and function. Certainly the art/craft debate is one I haven’t thought about for twenty years, since I was making sculpture out of clay, and came across the divisive and irritable divide between the two. My work was called ‘ceramic sculpture’, a horrible phrase to my mind, which fitted neither into one camp nor the other. I found myself conceptually tangled-up within the debate then. The difference, to my mind, lies in the approach, in the intent and purpose of the work. It’s an interesting area to me, as the notion of ‘crafting’ implies an expertise and understanding of material which is of course evident in the way Nash’s sculptures are physically ‘made’,
I’m in danger of an ‘I ♥ colour ‘ take 2: my last blog on here enthusing about colour in Prendergast’s paintings. ‘Our comrade’ Peter Prendergast was again cited in Dafydd Elis Thomas’ opening speech to ‘Red, Black Other’. Prendergast was a contemporary of Nash’s, in this corner of North wales, where Nash still has his home and studio.
RED, BLACK, OTHER is showing at Mostyn until 13 Nov 2011
Photography courtesy of Mostyn