David Nash says that his work is about “the interface of mind and nature”1 —a familiar coupling (or duality) that he explores through sculptures made entirely from trees. He saws, chops, and burns them into robust objects that remain clearly connected to the land while assuming machine-made, often geometrical shapes. By bringing the landscape indoors in this fashion, he means to assert the unity of the two realms—a worldview with roots (so to speak) in both Western Romanticism and Asian philosophy. His fascination with trees in particular has to do with their symbolic importance as a link between heaven and earth as well as their myriad real functions in providing shelter and food. Both mutable and sturdy, trees link the four elements of earth, air, fire, and water. “Damp and dry/burnt and buried/wood is given/we do not make it,” Nash writes. “In air it cracks/in fire it burns/in water floats/in earth returns.”2
Nash found his footing early, while still a student at the Chelsea School of Art in London. There he constructed enormous, Tatlinesque towers in the cityscape, which he made from scraps of found wood—a bricoleur’s practice that anticipated his current method of working in natural settings exclusively with dead or condemned trees. As his interest in the habits and properties of wood deepened, he began using as much of each tree as possible, even burning twigs to make drawing charcoal. Today he is associated with so-called British Land Art—modest, often ephemeral alterations of the landscape by artists such as Richard Long and Andy Goldsworthy—but Nash also has connections to the more assertive American traditions of Earth Art and Minimalism, and his sculptures seem to effortlessly blend all three approaches.
In 1987, the Walker Art Center commissioned Nash to make a piece for the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. Standing Frame was fashioned from two white oaks cut near Taylors Falls, Minnesota. The sculpture is a witty cross between natural and man-made forms: three crooked tree limbs support a perfect, open square, a “nothing” described by the material “something,” as Nash has suggested.3 He made the work entirely at the site, as he prefers to do, cutting and assembling the parts in the forest near where the trees had stood; it was then trucked to Minneapolis and installed initially on an outdoor terrace, then in the Garden.4 Some seven years later, feeling that time and weather had grayed the piece so much that its impact was diminished in the open expanse of its setting, Nash returned to char it soot-black, using slow-burning propane torches. “By charring, one changes the experience of wood—it’s no longer wood, a vegetable, it’s a mineral experience and you see the form again … it changes the sense of scale and time.”5
A second work in the collection, Nature to Nature III (1987), was made at the same time and on the same site as Standing Frame. A cube, a sphere, and a pyramid were measured and cut from the trunk of an elm, then charred in a bonfire. These objects were laid on sheets of paper, leaving “footprints” that were later enhanced with charcoal and made into drawings. Its title suggests Nash’s project to reassert the elemental relationship between geometry and the flowing, organic forms of nature.
Nash, correspondence with the author, June 22, 2004 (Walker Art Center Archives). ↩
David Nash, Wood Primer (San Francisco: Bedford Press, 1987), 5. ↩
Nash, correspondence with the author, June 16, 2004 (Walker Art Center Archives). ↩
The piece was first sited on one of the Walker’s terraces near the sculpture Three x Four x Three by Sol LeWitt. As Nash has recounted, then-director Martin Friedman envisioned “a shoot-out” between the emphatically Minimalist LeWitt and the more organic object by Nash. “I had long admired and had learnt a lot from LeWitt’s work,” recalls Nash, “so I made [my] frame exactly the same height, and the internal frame space is exactly the same size as the spaces in the LeWitt.” Ibid. ↩
Nash, lecture at the Walker Art Center, April 28, 1994 (Walker Art Center Archives). ↩