London

David Nash

Serpentine Galleries

Though organizations such as Common Ground and projects like the Forest of Dean Sculpture Trail have recently been promoting the work of young artists working in the outdoors and coaxing others out of their studios, environmental sculpture itself is nothing new. David Nash, often regarded as the father of it all, has been at it longer than the Green movement. Committed to nature, yet without obvious polemic, Nash’s work with fallen timber, and occasionally live trees, can stand alone as powerful sculptural heirs to the abstract work of earlier British artists such as Barbara Hepworth.

There is nothing in these works of the precious whimsy that frequently threatens the works of environmental artists. Rough and elemental, Nash’s sculptures preserve the character of the wood, incorporating the natural cracks and flaws. Visible ax marks contrast with smooth areas in Big Tongue, 1988, and the sinuous, totemic forms of oak and ash in Two Ubus, 1988, tower above the viewer, retaining their tree-trunk origins.

Nash effectively employs the natural coloration of wood in the striated, hollowed-out, boatlike forms of the Serpentine Vessels, 1989, or in the rich red of Slot Wedge, 1979. At times Nash works on a monumental scale, as in the three-meter-high charred elm Threshold Column, 1990. One of the most striking works in this exhibition, it consists of a deep black, hollow form standing as an impressive sentinel at the gallery entrance. In Nature to Nature, 1990, universal geometric forms—a cone, a sphere and a cube—are rendered both in charred wood and as charcoal drawings on paper.

Much of the effect of these works is their strong primitive quality and deliberate lack of refinement. Although over the years Nash appears to have moved away slightly from the architectural approach to the more organic and mystical one reflected in works such as Big Tongue or Two Ubus, certain pieces still rely on the architectural associations of wood. Cracking Box, 1979, and the early Table With Cubes, 1971, are both good examples. Ancient Table, 1983, is a simple archetypal table form constructed from old, wormy oak beams. As this exhibition makes plain, Nash is a vital artist who continues to develop. It is a bit of a pity that he could not have taken advantage of the sylvan surroundings of Kensington Gardens in which the gallery is set. On the other hand, the positioning of the works in the gallery, by distancing them from nature, underscores their validity as independent sculpture.

Natasha Edwards